There is no denying that women in Egypt—Egyptians and foreigners alike—face big challenges on the street, let alone at work and home.
Harassment and discrimination in and outside the workplace is common and is barring enough women from entering male-dominated sectors like manufacturing or engineering.
In a UN Women 2013 study, 99.3% of Egyptian women surveyed admitted to being sexually harassed, but in 85% of the cases, none of the bystanders to the harassment incident intervened to help.
While the media has focused attention on resolving endemic sexual harassment, officials and activists often do not discuss the economic benefit of increasing women’s participation in the formal economy.
The latest data from Egypt’s government statistics agency, CAMPAS, shows Egypt’s women are severely underemployed — 24.7% of the women in Egypt’s labour force are unemployed compared to the 9.6% of males.
As the country’s economy slowed, the number of jobs declined and the competition for jobs between men and women intensified.
Yet amid the on-going political standoff and struggling economy, mobilising female employment never emerged as a priority for Egypt’s government while the female workforce is recognised as a growing economic force.
“We’re at a tipping point of women’s engagement in the economy, as we move from advocacy of women to the smart business of real investment in women,” says Sallie Krawcheck, a former Bank of America executive and recent buyer of 85 Broads network, a women’s network founded by Goldman Sachs executives.
Over the next decade, about a billion women are expected to enter the global workforce, making their participation and engagement in the economy all the more significant.
But is Egypt ignoring a potential massive source of economic growth, as other options of financing and growth are running low?
According to a study by Booz Allen consulting firm, raising the level of female employment to male levels could boost Egypt’s GDP by as much as 34% percent.
“We were very conservative with our calculations, but still we got this number,” says Mounira Jamjoom, a senior researcher at Booz Allen & Co.
Even if women choose to work part-time, and they have less labour productivity than men (given men were in the workforce before women), the impact on GDP would still be high, Ms Jamjoom.
And propelling women into the workforce could have more a dramatic impact on the lives of millions of Egyptians.
“Economics shapes behaviors, sexual and reproductive. It will change dynamics within marriage, give young people empowerment, help them to realise autonomy also in their private lives,” says Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, who spent five years researching sexuality in the Arab region.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is not the government’s reluctance to address women’s unemployment, but the attitudes of a women’s place in society at large.
These issues are not exclusive to Egypt or the Middle East for that matter.
“The difference comes in what the culture defines for men and women about what prioritising family over work means,” says Robin J. Ely, economics professor at Harvard Business School.
“For men, it’s about being a breadwinner. A man might prioritize family over work by taking a bigger job. This plays out the opposite way for women.”
Rethinking these definitions has the potential to yield dramatic economic results for Egypt, but is the country ready for a cultural overhaul?