AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan faces a strange conundrum today. Yes, the tiny country continues to cement its status as the Arab world’s unlikely safe haven by continuing to absorb thousands of Syrian refugees into its fledgling infrastructure. Yes, this has undoubtedly contributed to its increasing unemployment rate, which stood at 14 percent as of 2013. But these unfortunate circumstances play a minimal role — if one at all — in explaining the following fact: two-thirds of Jordanian women are able to work, but as many as one-third of them are unemployed.
One might look at that statistic and think that Jordan’s education system is to blame. There must be a gaping gender disparity; there must exist some displacement of young women within the education system that has been overlooked by the government.
That would certainly explain it, but the truth is that no such disparity exists. Jordan’s education system is actually seen as a model within the Arab world. It boasts literacy rates and primary school enrollment rates that increasingly approach 100 percent every year for both boys and girls. In fact, Jordan’s gender parity in literacy is 90 percent, the highest in the Arab world, and women actually outnumber men at universities.
So what is the issue?
A Decline in Teaching Quality
Unfortunately, while the education system has made enormous strides since 1980, there remains room for improvement, regardless of gender. For instance, although Jordan sees nearly 92,000 citizens graduate university every year, only half of them land a job. Many believe this can be attributed to the public school system’s reliance on rote teaching methods and the prevalence of unqualified teachers.
Cultural Barriers for Women in Jordan
Women in Jordan have yet to be fully seen as capable working professionals who perform equally as well as men. And while education reforms have tried to battle such perceptions, local customs still place women in society as educated mothers rather than successful entrepreneurs.
In fact, while 10 percent of men are inactive, meaning they are neither students nor employees and don’t actively seek employment, a whole 37 percent of women are identified as such. These women often include the “educated mother” who does not seek a job because cultural norms frown on the image of a woman with a career. Even worse, a recent World Bank study suggests that higher education really doesn’t benefit women: “Unemployment rises with the level of education for women, while men with higher education are less likely to be unemployed.”
As of now, the sectors Jordanian women dominate are education and health, where they respectively account for 38 percent and 12 percent of employees, yet they dominate these sectors only because workplace discrimination in other fields forced many to take jobs that gender stereotypes deem acceptable.
USAID has played an invaluable role in collaborating with the Jordanian government to improve the political representation of women and develop the presence of female entrepreneurs. In 2013, the agency helped establish the country’s first women parliamentary caucus in hopes that such a committee would help battle social norms that continue to perpetuate gender discrimination.
It is the growing tech sector, however, that proves to be the best candidate for ushering women into a typically male-dominated field: 30 percent of the tech labor force today is made up of women.
This tech sector is young and flourishing, so opportunities for women continue to crop up. 84,000 jobs have already been created, and of the more than 600 tech companies in Jordan, a little more than 300 are startups—meaning there is plenty of room for growth and educated female employees. Amman, Jordan’s capital and largest city, has already been cited as the 10th best place in the world to start an IT company.
In light of this recent development, one hopes that Jordan will follow the example of Qatar and Oman, fellow Arab countries whose governments have heavily encouraged women to work and study within male-dominated STEM fields.
The countries made news last year when they were represented by all-female teams at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, a student competition that challenges entrants to develop world-changing apps.
If Jordan’s King Abdullah II continues to commit to smart farsighted reform, perhaps the country will soon field such a team.