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International Women’s Day 2022: Spotlight on women in Egypt

The third part of our International Women’s Day blog series focuses on Egypt. We asked Dina, a LIME from Cairo, to tell us about the key issues facing women in her country. This is what she said.


What is workplace equality legislation like in Egypt?

Egypt’s 2014 constitution guarantees equal opportunities to all citizens without discrimination. In addition, Egyptian labour laws prohibit wage discrimination on the basis of sex. None of the laws governing civil servants require applicants for public office to be men.

That said, in 2003, the aptly-named Ministry of Manpower issued a list of jobs which women may not be appointed to. These included thirty occupations deemed “hard” or “harmful” to women’s health – often in heavy industries – or which might “harm women morally”. Women are also not allowed to work at night (7pm to 7am) except for certain jobs (such as nurses) and under special circumstances. The Ministry characterises this as “positive discrimination” in favour of women, as it is designed to protect women from harm. However, these rules are often not followed by employers, particularly in the private sector.

More generally, labour laws in Egypt:

  • Grant women the right to maternity leave.
  • Prohibit the dismissal of female workers during maternity leave.
  • Reduce the working hours for pregnant women.
  • Grant breastfeeding employees the right to claim additional breaks during the workday.
  • Entitle women to childcare leave.
  • Obligate any employer who employs one hundred female workers or more in one location to establish a nursery, or to entrust an existing nursery school to accommodate the children of the employees.

These laws tend to be observed more by the public sector than private sector employers. Only 18% of the female workforce in Egypt is employed by the private sector. This is because labour laws which protect women tend to be enforced only in the public sector.


What are the key barriers holding women back in their careers in Egypt?

According to the Egyptian Council for Women, the main issues that face women in the workplace are:

  • A lack of services to help women carry out family responsibilities during work, such as nurseries and suitable means of transportation.
  • Business owners can be reluctant to employ women because of the rights that labour laws grant for women.
  • The existence of social sects that oppose women’s right to work, and the prevalence of social cultures and attitudes that are against women’s work in some sectors.
  • Women’s willingness to accept poor work conditions to gain job opportunities in the private sector.
  • The uneven application of labour laws for working women in rural areas – they often work for low wages and without enjoying benefits that notionally they are entitled to.
  • Women in the workplace can be exposed to harassment, which in extreme cases can force them out.

In addition, Egyptian girls, especially in rural areas, are given fewer educational opportunities than boys. This contributes to a lower literacy rate amongst Egyptian women – about 65% for women compared to 82% for men. Digital literacy is also higher among males in urban and rural areas, particularly in older populations.


Female participation in the workplace

Covid affected women’s employment more than men. During the second quarter of 2020, 25% of women left the labour market because of Covid-19, compared to just 4% of men. During the third quarter of 2020, only 40% of women who left returned to work, compared to 96% of men.

Efforts by the Egyptian government and donor agencies and non-government agencies to support female employment could not stop unemployment rates from rising especially during economic and financial recessions and particularly after the political instability following the Egyptian uprising in 2011.

According to a 2019 survey, 50% of college graduates are female, but only 23% participate in the workforce.


The pay gap between men and women

The World Bank’s 2019 Women Economic Empowerment study showed that, on average, women in Egypt are paid 34% less per hour than their male counterparts. This varies by sector and region though.

According to a 2019 Survey by the International Financial Corporation (IFC), Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP) could soar by 32% if gender equality was achieved in the labour market.


How many successful female entrepreneurs or business owners are there in Egypt?

The proportion of female-owned businesses in Egypt is low, with less than 5% of businesses owned by women. By comparison, the world average for female participation in business ownership is 33.1%.

The World Bank’s 2019 Women Economic Empowerment study showed that women in Egypt were under-represented at every level of the corporate pipeline, with the greatest disparity at senior leadership levels. Women are also under-represented on company boards (only 9.7%) as well as in managerial positions (only 7.1%).

There is evidence to suggest that Egyptian companies which do have women on their boards outperform their peers with all-male boards across a range of indicators. For example:

  • Publicly listed financial institutions with women on their boards exhibited x2 return on equity.
  • Privately-held companies with five female board members had the highest return on equity and return on assets, publicly listed companies with three female board members had the highest return on equity, and those with two females on the board had the highest return on assets.


Women in Egyptian politics

Women are increasingly well represented in Egyptian politics. In 2020, 148 women were elected to the Egyptian parliament – which is about 25% of the total MPs. This number then increased to 162 when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appointed 14 more female lawmakers. The previous legislature only had 89 women. In 2021, 98 women became the first female judges to join Egypt’s State Council, one of the country’s main judicial bodies.


Women within the trade union movement

Women aren’t well represented within trade unions. The main reason for this is that the electoral process within unions tends to rely on networks and the ability to finance campaigns, which on the whole favours men rather than women. A parliamentary proposal to increase female representation within trade unions was submitted in December 2021 but there has been no progress on the issue yet.


How is the topic of women in the workplace covered by media in Egypt?

Local feminist groups in Egypt organise workshops on the role of the media in addressing women’s issues in general, not just in the workplace. Issues involving women in the workplace need to be addressed more by the media.

There has been an increase in the number of TV programmes dedicated to tackling women’s issues. Most of the prevailing stereotypes about women contradict the declared official position. There are often negative stereotypes of working women that portray them as “careless” mothers or wives. Across all media sectors, men occupy a higher percentage of senior management positions.


Famous female business leaders in Egypt

Aya and Mounaz Abdelrafouf

Two sisters created the brand, Okhtein (which means ‘sisters’ in Arabic), in 2014. They sell a range of handmade belts, glasses, backpacks and clutches known for their quirky designs. Their bags have been worn by local and international celebrities, including the Egyptian First Lady, Beyonce, Emma Watson, Halle Berry, Olivia Palermo and Gigi Hadid. Their brand also has a strong philanthropic edge to it, partnering with various local NGOs to support community causes, and using skilled female workers for the products’ manufacturing process.

Mervat Sultan

Mervat Sultan, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Export Development Bank of Egypt, ranked 32 among the list of the most powerful businesswomen in the Middle East and has more than 36 years of banking experience in local and international institutions. She is listed in Forbes “Middle East’s 100 Power Businesswomen 2020”.

Muna Zulficar

Ranked number 24 in Forbes’ “Middle East’s 100 Power Businesswomen 2020,” Mona Zulficar is a long-standing lawyer who played a vital role in drafting crucial economic legislation as an advisor to different governmental agencies, including the drafting of the Egyptian constitution in 2014. Zulficar has received several international awards, such as the Lifetime Excellence Award and the French Legion of Honour.

. . .

This article is based on insights and commentary supplied to us by Dina, one of Oban’s LIMEs from Cairo. Oban’s LIME network comprises over 450 Local In-Market Experts based in over 80 countries around the world. Our LIMEs provide authentic, on-the-ground cultural, linguistic and digital insights that help our clients succeed in their target markets. To find out how your business could benefit from Oban’s LIME network, please get in touch.

Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion. Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.

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