Skip to main content

Beyond glass ceiling, Iranian women face iron fence

The Iranian Ministry of Education's decision to impose gender quotas has raised bewilderment and disappointment.
Iranian teachers protest in front of the parliament building in Tehran March 8, 2007. Iranian police clashed on Thursday with scores of rights activists who gathered in front of parliament to celebrate International Women's Day, one of the activists said.    REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN) - RTR1N8EO

TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian authorities have moved to introduce gender quotas that shut out women in its exams for those seeking government and public sector jobs. Coupled with reports of high rates of unemployment among women, this has sparked serious doubts about the administration of President Hassan Rouhani’s approach toward increasing women’s presence in society.

The Ministry of Education held its nationwide exam for new job applicants on Sept. 18, with 178,000 people participating. The exact date for the announcement of the results is unclear. But what is clear is that no matter what score female applicants may obtain, they will make up only 10% of those who will be employed.

This disappointing development came to light in the registration guidelines for this year’s exam. Of the 3,703 educational posts up for grabs, it is stated that only 630 will go to women while the other 3,073 posts will go to men. Female applicants in the Iranian capital are perhaps the most exposed to this policy; of the 190 new employees that are to join the Ministry of Education in Tehran, only six are set to be women.

What is happening appears to be the fruits of long-planned labor. In February, the head of the Ministry of Education’s Research and Planning Organization expressed concerns to the semi-official Fars News Agency, which is linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, that having female teachers educate young boys in elementary schools will lead to the development of “feminine and girlish behavior.” These remarks have been interpreted as having paved the ground for the imposition of gender discrimination in this year’s employment exam.

Shirzad Abdollahi, a senior education analyst based in Tehran, told Al-Monitor that the majority of teachers in Iran’s major urban centers are currently women. “In big cities, and especially Tehran, between 70 and 80% of the educational workforce is made up of women. Most teachers in boys’ elementary schools, and especially from the first to third grade, are women.”

Although the number of female teachers in Iran’s major cities exceeds that of men, the gender balance is significantly tilted in favor of men when it comes to management positions. Abdollahi told Al-Monitor, “In managerial positions in the education system, except for school directors, women have a share of less than 1%, and the administrative and staff sectors also have a completely male contour.”

Yet, there is neither a sign in the remarks of senior officials nor the employment exam brochure that the Ministry of Education plans to impose a gender equilibrium policy at the management level. This has led many female job applicants to believe that the introduction of gender quotas in the employment exam is aimed at removing them from the job market.

In an interview on the condition her last name not be revealed, Forough, an aspiring language teacher, told Al-Monitor just before this year’s employment exam, “They want 100 English teachers, or 98 to be exact, and only seven women will be employed. So no matter how I do on Friday’s test, I only have a 1% chance of being accepted. This, I think, is ultimate injustice. I’m seriously shocked and hopeless. I understood that the previous government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was against women. But I don’t understand why Mr. Rouhani, who is a wise president, is doing this to us.”

It should be noted that the imposition of gender quotas to reduce the number of female employees is not limited to the Ministry of Education. Three months ago, this was seen at a larger scale when thousands of applicants competed for 2,800 different positions in 18 governmental organizations. Based on the brochure for that exam, which was distributed in late March, 2,284 jobs were to be allocated specifically to men (81.5%), while only 16 posts were set aside for women (0.57%). Of the 2,800 positions, 500 were made available for both genders.

The obvious and widespread gender discrimination witnessed in the government’s employment policies has even raised criticism from Rouhani’s own inner circle. In an interview with the daily Shahrvand on April 8, the vice president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, described the lowering of quotas for women in the exam for government and public sector jobs as discrimination and clear exclusion. “I believe that this exam, with its low capacity for employing women, is against the policies, plans, slogans and promises of the 11th [Rouhani] government.”

In the same interview, Molaverdi also announced that she was in discussions with relevant authorities about reconsidering the gender quotas. However, the lack of change in the quotas of this year’s employment exam for public sector positions, which was held in the Iranian month of Khordad (May 22 to June 21), indicates that her discussions failed to yield any results. A statement against gender discrimination, signed by hundreds of women’s rights activists, also failed to push the Iranian authorities to retreat from its position.

The scale of the issue of employment — or lack of employment — among Iranian women is huge. On Sept. 6, Molaverdi publicly stated that more than 40% of female graduates were jobless. Ever since Ahmadinejad first took office in 2005, female employment rates have experienced a largely negative slope. In 2005, 3.96 million women were employed. This year, the figure stood at 3.1 million. To put these figures in perspective, official statistics acknowledge that there are twice as many unemployed women as men in Iran. Moreover, more than half of women are currently seeking jobs.

When Rouhani took office in August 2013, it appeared that policies to boost female employment would be seriously pursued by his moderate government. However, two years later, that does not appear to be the case. Not only have the government’s policies failed to create more employment for women, but instead, the Rouhani administration appears to be supporting a growing trend seemingly designed to eliminate women from the workforce.

Shahla Sherkat, publisher and chief editor of the recently banned women’s magazine Zanan-e Emrooz (Today’s Women) — the most prominent publication in support of women’s rights in Iran during the past two decades — told Al-Monitor, “Truthfully, I and other women don’t understand why the government is not taking a stance on this issue. Even the government’s own vice president for women’s affairs is voicing criticism. What is apparent is that the president has given priority to the nuclear issue, foreign policy, health and medical affairs, and to some extent the environment. At the same time, the traditional way of thinking, which is opposed to the presence of women in public settings, has tied his hands." Sherkat added, "Also, he prefers to not fight on several fronts at the same time.” With a nuclear deal in hand and rising expectations from the public, Rouhani might very well end up doing what he may seek to avoid.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in