Female Labor in Jordan

Women in Jordan are excluded from labor market opportunities at among the highest rates in the world. Previous efforts to explain this outcome have focused on specific, isolated aspects of the problem and have not exploited available datasets to test across causal explanations. In this podcast, Emma Cameron, student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, interviews Growth Lab Research Fellow Semiray Kasoolu. Semiray discusses Growth Lab’s recent research on women’s economic exclusion in Jordan. The Growth Lab team has developed a comprehensive framework to analyze the causes leading to low female employment rates and participation in the labor market and systematically test their validity, using micro-level data.

Interview recorded on October 18, 2019.

Read the research behind the podcast: Female Labor in Jordan: A Systematic Approach to the Exclusion Puzzle


Katya Gonzalez-Willette: Hello and welcome to the Growth Lab at Harvard University's weekly podcast.

Women in Jordan are excluded from labor market opportunities are among the highest rates in the world. Previous efforts to explain this outcome have focused on specific isolated aspects of the problem and have not exploited available data sets to test across causal explanations. In this podcast, Emma Cameron, student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Interviews Growth of Research. Fellow  Semiray Kasoolu. Semiray discusses Growth Labs recent research on women's economic exclusion in Jordan. The Growth Lab team has developed a comprehensive framework to analyze the causes, leading to low female employment rates and participation in the labor market and systematically test their validity using micro level data.

Emma Cameron: Thank you so much for joining us here. So for those listening, I was wondering if you could give us a brief summary of your background and why you're interested specifically in this topic.

Semiray Kasoolu: Sure. Thank you for investing the time in this. My name is Semiray Kasoolu and I have been a research fellow at a Growth Lab for the past few years. Before that, I was studying at the Master's in Public Administration and international development at the Kennedy School and the reason why I'm interested in this topic goes back to my undergrad thesis on Turkish women's participation and how to improve it. And this is tied to my background. So it is a personally motivated passion that goes to research. And I was able to explore it in more detail thanks to the technical tools that I got while studying here and while working at the Growth Lab. And the second motivation is more on the professional side, because it was such a puzzle when we started working in Jordan to realize that a country that has this modern image has such a low female labor force participation, such high exclusion of woman from the labor force. It was a really motivating question and a challenge. And we really wanted to contribute to understanding it and eventually helping policymakers solve the problem. So I can summarize my motivation as a personal and a professional.

Emma: Great. Thank you. So before we dive into discussing the specific work that your team just did, can you give us some background on the current landscape in Jordan and what are some of the current important economic trends going on in Jordan?

Semiray: Sure. So I think we can summarize by saying that Jordan had a large growth acceleration from 2000 to 2008 when the economy grew, but then the recession hit and they have been in an economic downturn since then. I think the pressing questions for them is how they expand their private sector, how they create a vibrant private sector while also taking care of their debt. At the same time, they don't have much fiscal space to spend. So this becomes a very constrained space through which they can diversify and grow their private sector in terms of current challenges that they have is that their public sector cannot keep growing, and this has been one of the primary employers of woman in the country and it has been the employer of choice for Jordanian citizens in general. So I think the question becomes, how do we provide employment opportunities for citizens that does not rely on government funds? And that's where we came in a year and a half ago trying to help them solve this problem.

Emma: Great. Thank you. So now to get a little bit more into the research specifically. Can you please share some insight into the work that you and the Growth Lab have conducted in Jordan?

Semiray: So I can summarize it in a broad way, saying that we help form a strategy for growth for Jordan, given the constraints that it has in terms of limited fiscal space, in terms of water scarcity and terms of high costs of energy. So what we did is to analyze and identify sectors that would prove promising for growth and that would also employ woman. That's one of the insights that we came to. It is that knowledge intensive service sectors are uniquely positioned to provide employment opportunities and solve problems that Jordan has right now. And those include technology, ICT, finance and just services that could be exported and not only provided to the local economy. On the other hand, this has been all done through different work streams. We've had an energy works team that tried to identify how to solve the energy constrained. We held macro work stream that looked into the debt sustainability of Jordan and we also had a labor market work stream that analyze the unique features of the Jordanian labor market. And finally, we also did a complexity analysis to identify sectors that have high complexity. But given the constraints that I mentioned in terms of water energy, in terms of female labor exclusion and in terms of trade ability, we ran them through this filter and identified sectors that are uniquely positioned to solve all of these problems while combining all the insights we had from all of these different work streams.

Emma: Okay. And so within that, you identified what was happening with women in the labor market in Jordan.

Semiray: Exactly, along with other issues that were going on in the labor market, such as the shortage of high skilled foreigners, for example, there have been examples of foreign direct investment in Jordan when a company comes to Jordan to open a local office. And in most of the cases, they have been having problems bringing in uniquely qualified foreigners because of restrictions on foreign employment. So we have been working with the government to ease those restrictions and also show that in most cases, these are very few individuals who have unique skills who could provide employment options for hundreds of Jordanians and shift their mentality about the substitutability of foreigners and Jordanians and create them more of a narrative around that these skills are complementary to Jordanian skills. So on the labor market, they have in those two work streams where we looked at foreign labor and also female labor.

Emma: Great. And so based on lack of women in the labor force. What do you believe are the biggest barriers for women to enter the labor force in Jordan?

Semiray: So I think our first steps was to identify who are the woman who actually have problems entering the labor force and through our work we came to the conclusion that these are women with low levels of education, with a high school degree or less. And for them, we did find evidence in the data to suggest that highly conservative cultural attitudes are constraining their participation, but they are also more actionable things in terms of policy, such as lack of quality and reliability in the public transportation provision. And we also have some signals to suggest that maybe something is going on in the daycare market that is restricting women from reaching nurseries, whether its costs with its provision. We will need further details, but I would rate transportation, highly conservative cultural values and with further data, maybe the nursery market.

Emma: So do you believe these barriers to participation in labor force are distributed equally across Jordanian society? Or do you believe that different groups of women are facing different barriers, for example, along socioeconomic or geographical lines?

Semiray: So I would say that to begin with, I think socioeconomic status is directly associated with educational attainment, for example. And what we could observe in the data was educational attainment. So I will speak about that dimension. And we found that women with low levels of education are more impacted by these barriers because they rely more disproportionately on public transportation and because chances are high that they come from a background in which conservative cultural attitudes will be more binding. So definitely there is the educational status component, which, as you said, it is associated with socio economic status and the geographical site. We did find some data, but in the opposite to our expectations because we saw that in governorates that are further away from a man and are less metropolitan and a man woman actually participate more. So perhaps in these governors there is the cultural component, but it is not that strong contrary to expectations. But the income effect is higher, meaning that these are governors that have a higher poverty rate than average and that may be instigating woman and stimulating them to participate at higher levels than in more metropolitan and modern places such as Amman. So to summarize, yes, there is the educational component and also the geographical component, but the geographical component is distributed in a way that is contrary to expectations.

Emma: So you talked a little bit about cultural and transportation as two of the main barriers right now. Would you mind explaining to the listeners just what you mean by those two terms?

Semiray: Sure. It is very difficult to unpack culture. But what we mean by our attitudes and beliefs that constrain woman's ability to look for a job and some proxies in the data that we could identify to assess that were a question such as if a woman works to their children, suffer. Do you agree or disagree? Or if jobs are scarce. Should men have bigger right to that job than a woman? Or what do you prefer a woman to do it? To work, to take care of their families? Or do both? And along all of these questions, Jordan registers highly conservative attitudes, meaning that they strongly agree that the children are working. Mothers suffer. That is the highest rate recorded along all countries. They also answer that they would prefer a woman to only take care of their families. Forty two percent of Jordanian men say that this is at a similar rate to Saudi men, for example. And finally, when it comes to looking whether woman how the same right to get a job, they disagree. And Jordanian respondents, actually, 93 percent of them in the 2014 World Value Survey answered that men should have a higher right to a job. So by these cultural attitudes, I mean anything that could be constraining a woman's ability to look for a job or get a job due to all of these social and societal and cultural beliefs that are ingrained in them. And when it comes to transportation, actually, that's a good question. Because it captures not the infrastructure, but what we mean by transportation is the actual provision and the reliability of public transportation. What we found in Jordan is that the transportation provision is highly fractionalized and it is very fragmented and individuals control different lines that may not run down on time. That may not be well connected. And we found that because women with low levels of education rely disproportionately more on public transportation, they're more affected by all of these inefficiencies that are going on there. And in the data, we can observe that in commute times, for example, where women self-select into jobs that have very short commute times. This is either due to safety concerns that come from being in a public transportation for a long time. While men can afford to spend about forty five minutes per day in public transportation, which is about 55 to 60 percent higher than the range that woman can expect to have. And also, I think the main thing, what we mean by transportation is the software of transportation, so to say, which includes things like reliability, accessibility, safety, and all of these measures that we find in the data in terms of commute times and a proxy by just looking at commute times. And we also find that in districts that have higher commute times, woman with low levels of education are less likely to participate. And that is not the dynamic we observe for other groups of woman. So there is definitely something about transportation and it's inefficiency that is impacting woman with low levels of education much more.

Emma: Interesting. So I believe you said 42 percent of men believed that women should be at home raising their children as child rearing considered a noble profession in Jordan?

Semiray: So the survey we used was the World Values Survey to assess that. So I think that it is very hard to say. I believe that maybe there is some component of the noble profession that you mentioned. And it looks like it is ingrained in social views because also 31 percent of woman also agreed that they would prefer a woman to raise children. I cannot make the normative statement whether this is the case because I have even though extensive but very limited interactions and exposure to Jordanian society. But what I can say from the data is that we observe large drops in participation after the age of first birth, and that occurs pretty early for women with lower levels of education and a little bit later for a woman with a university degree. But it does look like it is prioritized whether this is prioritized, because the nursery market is not providing the services that women need or whether they are not accessible or a woman just don't prefer to use them because of cultural views or they don't trust nurseries. I can't say. But it does look like child rearing impacts participation a significant way in Jordan.

Emma: In your opinion, what are the most important policy tools available to help increase women's access in the labor market?

Semiray: I would think that improving the public transportation, safety and reliability and accessibility is a major one that is within the reach of policymakers and they have actually been working on that a lot in the past few years. But I would add that there are some low hanging fruit there that could have high improvements in terms of women's access to the labor market. And these include bigger accountability around the timeliness of public transportation provision and that would increase the reliability and make it more accessible for women. The second point I would say is increasing the strictness and the implementation as well as of design of laws that are there to prevent gender based discrimination and sexual harassment. What we have found out visually reviewing in the cases such as the woman and the business and the law index published by the World Bank and also talking to organizations in Jordan is that even though there are laws to prevent sexual harassment, they're very limited in scope, such as only your boss would be liable for that and not anyone else. There are also other laws that are there to provide a safe working environment for women. But actually, they put the burden of being safe on the woman rather than on society at large. One example is the law that prohibits night of work for women. So women are not allowed to work after, I believe, 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. or something like that. And that significantly reduces women's access to some jobs that require overtime, for example, or work jobs that require night work. And while this law is well intentioned, it is ill designed in the sense that it shifts the burden of being safe to the woman by restricting her access to jobs. So increasing the type of laws that would actually make it costly for people to discriminate against women and to make it costly to have sexual harassment at work and at public places is another way that policymakers could make big improvements today.

Emma: Great. Thank you. And so what future work in questions does the Growth Lab have planned to further your research?

Semiray: Our formal engagement in Jordan ended in September, but there's a lot of work to be done with the dissemination of the paper that we had and we would definitely like some wide dissemination of the findings to make sure that this paper reaches policymakers and is useful to them. And second, I think there's a lot of work to be done regarding the nursery market just because the data is very scarce and we would like to find ways to collaborate with organizations or students here who could advance that level of research. But as of now, our work in Jordan and that end of September.

Emma: Great. Well, thank you so much for your time.

Semiray: Thank you for your good questions.

Katya: If you want to learn more about the Growth Lab's latest research and events, please visit growthlab.cid.harvard.edu. See you next week.