Bridging the female unemployment gap in MENA – the role of the private sector

By Carmen Haddad

Carmen Haddad, the Chief Country Officer in Saudi Arabia for Citi and the Co-Chair of the Citi Women Network for the UAE, is a key trailblazer, championing for gender equality and the rise of women in business across the MENA. Here she shares with us her thoughts on the importance of corporates in advancing gender empowerment and female youth employment across the MENA.


Women make up almost half of the world’s working-age population of nearly 5 billion people. But only about 50 percent of those women participate in the labour force, compared with 80 percent of men (International Monetary Fund policy paper July 2018: Opportunity for All: Promoting Growth and Inclusiveness in the Middle East and North Africa). Furthermore, women who are paid for their work are disproportionately employed in the informal sector—especially in developing economies—where employers are subject to fewer regulations, leaving workers more vulnerable to lower wages and job losses. 

For those who do work, few move to senior positions or start their own businesses. Most women take on a higher share of unpaid work within the family, performing domestic ‘duties’, which can limit their opportunity to engage in paid work and constrain their options when they do. As a result, women who generally spend less time in the paid labour market, have lower pensions, face a higher risk of poverty in old age and ultimately have a half-life. 

The situation is more acute in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It is well documented that the region’s youth unemployment, is the highest in the world at about 25 per cent. Youth joblessness in eight countries is already more than 30 per cent, including in Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s biggest economy, and Egypt, its most populous according to The International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

For women, the situation is even worse. Here, women are too often underemployed, underpaid, and underpromoted as they must confront an array of legal and social barriers, restricting not only their lives but also their livelihoods, and contributing to starkly unequal economic outcomes. 

With female labour force participation in MENA currently the lowest in the world with only one in five working-age women currently employed, or actively seeking employment (The World Bank 2019), this is a growing crisis.

Another factor contributing to female and youth unemployment is the education system in MENA. Despite education often being perceived as the answer to unlocking career pathways, women are more likely to be unemployed as their level of education increases. 

For example, in regions such as Saudi Arabia and Tunisia women outnumber men in universities by over 105 percent. Yet despite this promising upward trend of female representation in higher education, 75 percent of Arab women are still excluded from the labour market. 

Why is that? MENA’s public education systems are not providing individuals with the necessary skills demanded by business, triggering a serious skills mismatch between what employers want and what jobseekers can offer. As a result, a large percentage of the regions skilled female workforce remains neglected. With limited mobility, closed industries and inadequate access to entrepreneurial opportunities fuelling female unemployment the region’s future development is restricted.  In turn, these barriers against women are shrinking the pool of talent available to employers.

A report recently published by the IMF suggested that if the vast gender gap was narrowed from triple to double the average for other emerging markets and developing economies, then MENA’s economic growth could have doubled in the past decade, contributing $1 trillion in additional output. 

With the public sector failing to provide suitable opportunities for women to overcome these barriers and enter the workforce, it is clear that a new approach is desperately required to effectively address the female unemployment crisis.

So, what can be done to mitigate against the rife gender disparities? There is no single solution and each country across MENA has different economic development rates and gender gaps, dominant industries and educational policies. The private sector can play an important role in accelerating women’s progress. 

As global citizens, I believe that it is important for everyone to participate in this endeavour. However, the private sector is in a unique position to empower women and provide them with the necessary skills and opportunities to seek employment.  

For the private sector to play a more active role in addressing the education and employment crisis, they must be more engaged in ongoing discussions with the education community and government. They would be among the greatest beneficiaries of higher learning achievements, given that children and youth are their future pool of employees.

In the next decade alone, it is estimated that 50 million women will come of working age in the region (Education For Employment Policy Paper, 2016). Yet, four out of five working-age women are currently absent from the labour force, and, as a result, women only contributing 18% to MENA’s overall GDP (McKinsey Global Institute Report, 2015). Through designing and implementing innovative policies and programs, businesses have a great opportunity to re-shape the position of women across the MENA and dramatically change these statistics.  

From supporting programmes that improve individuals’ soft and technical skills, to endorsing philanthropic partnerships and working to re-directed pre-conceived gender perceptions, there are numerous ways businesses can enhance an individual’s ability to enter the workforce. 



For example, at the Citi Foundation we have focused our efforts on the benefits of philanthropic commitments, partnering with Education For Employment (EFE), to deliver our Pathways to Progress initiative since 2013. The partnership with EFE has contributed to the socio-economic growth of Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the UAE through labour market analysis, innovation, skills training programmes, and career-launching jobs for young women and men. The partnership serves as an opportunity to align complimentary business and education priorities to stimulate long-term business growth, unlocked economic opportunities and meet MENA’s societal needs. 

Through focusing on entrepreneurship training, mentorship programmes and leadership development schemes, we work with local community organisations to help women develop the essential tools they need to enter the workforce. A key element of this is to engage over 10,000 employees to act as mentors, coaches and role models to women in support of their career progress and aspirations.

Discussions must lead to identifying practical ways in which the private sector could: 1. better prepare women for the job market by identifying more clearly the areas of hiring, the skills needed and providing opportunities for developing job skills; 2. increase overall corporate investments and direct those investments to have the greatest impact on learning outcomes; and finally 3. draw on corporate resources and competencies to create more effective partnerships with the education community to enable new innovative answers to challenges.

MENA governments understand that they can no longer be solely responsible for improving education outcomes and creating jobs alone. Only with the power, influence and investment from the private sector can we then start to re-shape the position of women across MENA, empower and skill them up, cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit and successfully bring them into the national workforce.

The private sector can use their positions to design policies that help women and girls’ access what they need for a fulfilling life—including education, safe transportation, legal protection against harassment, finance, and flexible working arrangements. For MENA to have a strong, stable and bright economic future, we need an inclusive economy with strong and bright women driving it.  

Carmen Haddad is the Chief Country Officer of Citi Saudi Arabia and the Citi Saudi Arabia Business Governance Head. Carmen is also the Co-Chair of the Citi Women Network for the UAE. Citi has committed $100 million by 2020 to tackling the global unemployment crisis. Citi Foundation has partnered with EFE for the past six years to benefit thousands of young people in several MENA countries.


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