Is COVID-19 pushing women in Egypt out of workforce?

With schools reopening and many shifting to partial online learning because of the coronavirus crisis, working moms in Egypt are facing the challenging task of juggling work and supporting their children’s education.

al-monitor Women, mask-clad due to the coronavirus pandemic, wait to cast their ballots outside a polling station in the town of el-Ayyat in Giza province, south of Cairo, Egypt, Aug. 11, 2020. Photo by AFP via Getty Images.

Sep 2, 2020

As unemployment continues to increase in Egypt, women seem to be particularly hard hit by the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And with schools reopening and many shifting to partial online learning, parents are yet again facing the challenging task of juggling work and supporting their children’s education.

This situation is significantly impacting women since they culturally take on a greater share of child care and domestic responsibilities. Adapting to a long-term reality of managing work and school could lead women to leave their jobs to better support their children and families during this time. 

According to a recent report by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, Egypt’s unemployment rate rose to a near two-year high in the second quarter of this year hitting 9.6%. Men’s unemployment increased to 8.5% while women’s unemployment reached 16.2%, according to the same report.

Many women cite child care as a reason that they are struggling to work. “When schools and companies closed in March, it was a very challenging time for me,” Sarah Sayed, mother and engineering professor at a foreign university in Egypt, told Al-Monitor. “The problem was having a safe space to conduct my online sessions without my daughter knocking on the door.”

With her daughter’s school returning to full onsite learning this fall, Sayed feels relieved that she will be better able to manage her work while supporting her daughter’s education. “Even though I’m worried about her going back to school, I feel better about being able to do my job because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to manage it.”

Others, however, are not so lucky. A mother in the banking sector, who wishes to remain anonymous, still doesn’t know how she is going to juggle returning to work with remote learning for her daughter. With her company reopening after the lockdown, she is left struggling for child care alternatives. “I don’t wish for the experience of learning and working from home to continue, but at the same time my company doesn’t have a supportive system in place for working parents,” she told Al-Monitor.

While leaving work is not something she wishes to do, she is considering it if all else fails. “There needs to be understanding and flexibility for this to work,” she added.

Work flexibility is not a new concept in Egypt. Egypt introduced flexible work regulations in 2003 to help companies structure policies and procedures to move toward more flexible forms of employment.

In fact, according to Egyptian Streets, wuzzuf.net, an online platform for job listings in Egypt, saw a 124% increase in the number of remote job postings in 2016-17, and a 144% increase in employees applying for remote work opportunities.

Rania Ayman, founder of Entreprenelle, an organization that aims to support Egyptian women launch and grow their own businesses, believes flexibility is crucial for women to join and remain in the workforce. As a company that practices work flexibility, she and her team still work remotely and have even set up work stations for employees to work from home during the pandemic.

“We plan to return to three days per week at the office, but still there is room for more flexibility depending on employees’ circumstances,” Ayman said. “I think employers have to be more tolerant. Women’s needs are different especially in our culture and society.”

Meanwhile, Samar H. Abouelkheir, founder of Content ME, a content development agency in Cairo, also has a flexible work arrangement at her office. It has enabled her to continue operating smoothly during the pandemic.

“As a business, we didn’t experience any disturbance and our work continued uninterrupted,” Abouelkheir told Al-Monitor.

According to an ongoing survey conducted by her agency, Content ME, 56% of female employees mostly working in the Information Communication and Technology  sector in Egypt prefer a flexible work arrangement and find it helpful when engaging with their teams. In addition, 75% of female employees report that flexible work has a positive effect on their lives outside the office.

While most companies have been forced to embrace remote working because of the pandemic, it is usually international organizations that are more likely to offer the option to work from home (87%) than locally based companies (69%), according to Globalwebindex, a market research company.

In May 2020, The Telegraph reported that several employers including Barclays, WPP, Next and Vodafone are exploring changes to their work practices. This is done in an effort to cut costs by reducing their office estates.

Flexibility is not the only issue at stake for women's employment. Improving gender equality at home and in the workplace is necessary for women to continue making strides in society.

Although women in Egypt make up about 50% of the population, they only represent 23% of the total labor force participation compared to 70% of men in 2019.

Recognizing this gap in the labor force, Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation Rania al-Mashat, President of National Council for Women Maya Morsy and the World Economic Forum recently launched the “Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator,” the first of its kind in the (North) Africa and the Middle East region.

The accelerator aims to prepare women for the post-coronavirus world of work, close gender gaps in remuneration between and within sectors, enable women’s participation in the labor force and advance more women into management and leadership roles, according to Ahram Online, one of Egypt’s leading English-language publications.

Furthermore, the International Finance Corporation also recently launched a new advisory program in Egypt to improve women’s employment in the country. The three-year program will help create family-friendly, flexible workplaces to make Egyptian businesses more resilient, agile and inclusive, especially in times of crisis, as outlined in CSR Egypt.

“Any step toward empowering women economically is a step in the right direction,” Ayman said.

Yasmin Shafei, Egyptian doctoral fellow at the American University of Beirut residing in Cairo, also believes that increasing economic empowerment of women is tied to improving gender equality.

“The pandemic has highlighted gender inequalities so clearly. One gender hasn’t been able to get along and one has been slightly affected,” she said. “We see this not only in the Middle East, but globally. There has to be a dialogue to initiate change. We need to increase gender equality and have men take on a bit more.”

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