Women in Jordan – Limited Economic Participation and Continued Inequality

April 17, 2014


  • Women in Jordan are living longer, but far behind men in employment
  • The lives of Jordanian women are constrained by gender-related bias, restrictive social norms, and a discriminatory legal framework
  • A new report calls for action to address the social, economic and political gaps between men and women

Jordan shows remarkable gender equality in health and education. Although women’s life expectancy, literacy, and women’s enrollment in all levels of education have improved dramatically, however, these gains have not led to improvements in women’s economic participation or agency.

A new World Bank Group report on gender in Jordan, Economic Participation, Agency and Access to Justice, looks at this central question and finds that improvements in human development have yet to translate into improvements in social, economic, and political participation. At workshops in Jordan dedicated to dissemination of the report, participants highlighted the constraints women face in relation to employment.

“Pre-school care is costly, domestic helpers are expensive, and public transportation does not exist, combined with a minimum wage of 190 Jordanian dinars [US$270 a month]. Naturally, women feel it is more economically viable to stay at home,” Asma Khader, a Jordanian senator and leading women’s rights activist, told the workshop in Amman on March 10.

Other participants noted that these constraints have driven women to run informal businesses at home, with some negative economic impact for Jordan as these activities are not taxable.

These are but some of the problems discouraging women from participating in the formal economy. The participation of women in the labor force in the kingdom is only 22 percent, versus 87 percent for men. Married women are considerably less likely to participate in the labor force. Young and educated women, ready to join the labor force, face high levels of unemployment. Gender-related bias in the economic structure of employment adversely affects women’s economic participation.

In Jordan’s highly segmented labor market, the limited opportunities that do exist for women are clustered in the civil service, and in particular within the health and education sectors. These sectors have not experienced a high job creation rate in past decades, and consequently women have not benefited much from the country’s overall higher growth rates.

Barriers to economic participation seem to start with women’s education and are negatively impacted by low economic incentives. There remains a clear disconnect between the skills and education women acquire, and those demanded by employers, particularly in the private sector.

Dr. Amneh Khasawneh, Director of the Princess Basma Center for Jordanian Women’s Studies at Yarmouk University in the Northern Governorate of Irbid, which hosted a separate workshop on the issue, said literacy among Jordanian women has reached 99 percent, the highest in the region: “However, the key problem facing women’s employment is the mismatch between their education and the needs of the labor market.”

" Women also face obstacles in accessing justice in order to challenge discriminatory laws. "

No shortage of studies and surveys have been done showing how to improve women’s integration into the economy, Khasawneh said, but these have been scattered and not put together into a comprehensive strategy. Last year, under the supervision of Senator Khader, Jordan’s National Commission for Women drafted a strategy for revamping laws, especially the civil status law, to uphold women’s rights. However, no budget has been allocated by the government to implement these.   

The mismatch in the education/labor markets encourages women to seek employment in the public sector, deemed more socially acceptable and more suitable in terms of balancing family responsibilities, such as childcare, too. These factors are reinforced by legal and social limits on women, and by a lack of effective policies to promote women’s inclusion and participation in economic life.

Despite some recent improvements, women’s agency – a term covering decision-making in the control of economic assets, family, and personal life, as well as a in society and policy – remains restricted by a combination of discriminatory laws and social norms, the latter often restricting rights provided in law.  Social control of economic assets, such as land, bank accounts and access to loans, remains tilted towards men. Men often receive family-related benefits attached to salaries and pensions, which women can access only through complicated administrative procedures.

Legal restrictions are strongest in relation to family and personal life where despite recent reforms the widest legal gaps are found. These gaps are linked to issues such as head-or-household status, marriage and divorce procedures, inheritance, and child custody.  Women are often required to have a male guardian to conduct basic transactions and cannot pass their nationality onto family members on the same grounds as men.

Women’s political participation has nonetheless been steadily increasing: Quota systems have been effective in increasing their participation in elected bodies, particularly at the level of local government. But such levels remain low relative to global standards. Women’s participation in professional associations has also grown, though women tend to be concentrated in lower-level positions and in sectors viewed as more female-friendly.

Women also face unique obstacles when it comes to access to justice, even though men and women generally demonstrate the same levels of awareness of rights. Justice sector services, such as those provided by courts, are a way for women to challenge unfair and discriminatory practices. Yet women are less likely to use the courts due to their lack of financial resources and perceptions of social shame. They are also more likely to be affected by personal status disputes such as divorce, alimony, and child support, where legal aid services are less developed, affecting poorer women in particular.

The report highlights the need for expanding economic opportunities for women and addressing the gender gaps in agency and justice. The World Bank continues to engage with government entities and civil society organizations on this. Its recommendations include:

  • Introducing policies to reduce gender-based occupational segregation
  • Removing barriers that prevent women from working in high productivity sectors
  • Promoting the growth of ‘female-friendly’ industries and expanding the range of industries ‘suitable’ for women
  • Reforming the education system to better respond to market signals and equip young women with skills demanded by the private sector
  • Boosting female employment to reduce the real and perceived additional costs of hiring women
  • Developing policies to dispel common prejudices and social norms restricting women’s employment
  • Removing regulatory barriers and easing access to credit for female entrepreneurs

Agency and Access to Justice would be improved by:

  • Reforming legal frameworks covering family and employment matters to promote equality between men and women
  • Providing economic assets related to family maintenance to women on an equal basis with men
  • Ensuring legislative amendments are implemented to improve women’s agency in control of economic assets and family and personal life
  • Experimenting with mechanisms to improve women’s participation in government entities and professional associations
  • Aligning justice sector services to better address the demands and needs of women, especially poor women who remain the most disadvantaged in the justice system