How gender-inequality is stopping Moroccan women from working

Glass ceilings: What's stopping Moroccan women from working?
5 min read
21 January, 2022
As Morocco continues to thrust itself into modernity, one area seemingly been left behind is gender equity. With Moroccan women struggling to enter the workforce, The New Arab examines the repercussions of such disparities, and what can be done.

Morocco has done well to push itself into modernity, from providing affordable public transportation in major cities to building the world’s largest concentrated solar farm. Yet one area where the North African country has plenty of room for improvement is gender equality – specifically regarding the women workforce. So what is stopping Moroccan women from working? 

The female workforce in Morocco has always been disproportionately lower than the male workforce, yet in recent years, the situation has worsened. In 1999, 30 percent of Moroccan women participated in the Moroccan workforce. One would assume that this percentage would have increased in the past two decades. However, it has steadily decreased.

By 2019, only 22 percent of Moroccan women contributed to the workforce. These numbers are much lower than the global average of 51 percent, but they aren’t surprising for the Middle Eastern and North Africa (MENA) region.

The MENA region has the lowest female labour force participation globally. This underdevelopment in the region’s gender equality is holding households back from the financial stability and disposable income that make life easier and more enjoyable. 

"Morocco would be economically and socially transformed if more women entered the workforce. When it comes to the bigger picture, the country needs more securely employed women"

There are several reasons why Moroccan women are struggling to find employment and work. To start with, the Moroccan economy isn’t structured to welcome women into the workforce. Factory and agricultural jobs are considered masculine in the culture, and therefore 'not appropriate' for women. There’s also little incentive to introduce more women into pre-existing sectors, especially if they aren’t expanding. Things are working well enough as is, so why change that by introducing women into the equation? 

It’s difficult to ignore the heavily-followed gender norms in Morocco. Family constraints like children can halt a woman’s career or make working incredibly challenging. Her relationship status and the socio-economic status of her spouse are significant determinants of whether she needs to look for employment. Similar concerns or challenges for the male workforce are non-existent. 

For the women who want or need to work – specifically in rural areas – it can be challenging and humiliating to navigate the demeaning and misogynistic stigmas attached to employment.

Lisa Bossenbroek and Hind Ftouhi’s research for the Arab Reform Initiative found that rural Moroccan women working in agriculture were unappreciated by their employers and shamed by other women for pulling up their sleeves and getting to work in the fields. Rural women privileged enough to not work are demeaning towards working women regularly, “Here, it is shameful 'ayb' for a woman to work. Women worked before and we laugh at them because they work with men. If you work with a man, it’ll be said that you're his girlfriend,” says 50-year-old Naima. 

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Women in these rural areas are put in a precarious position; they must choose between honour and money. The illusion of choice excuses the harsh and ignorant words of those who don’t understand (or pretend not to understand) how financial insecurity dictates the sacrifices women make.

In many areas, the only other readily-available employment option is prostitution. The shame associated with sex work is even more unforgiving than that of thinning crops and picking onions. 

Morocco would be transformed economically and socially if more women entered the workforce. When it comes to the bigger picture, the country needs more securely employed women. 

"The Moroccan economy isn’t structured to welcome women into the workforce. Factory and agricultural jobs are considered masculine and therefore not appropriate for women. There’s also little incentive to introduce more women into pre-existing sectors, especially if they aren’t expanding"

Simulations predict that closing the gender employment gap, at any rate, would significantly increase Morocco’s GDP. Reducing the employment gap by 25 percent would increase the overall GDP in Morocco by up to 12 percent. If the gender gap was closed entirely, Morocco’s GDP would be 25-47 percent higher. This would revolutionise life for many Moroccan households. 

A newly-introduced female workforce would provide industries and other employees with new skills, ideologies, and risk attitudes. Because women work differently than men, increasing female participation in the workforce would help working environments become more well-rounded and socially complete. It would also normalise the idea that men and women can spend time together professionally and platonically. This may minimise the gender segregation still present in some regions of Morocco. 

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To say that the pandemic has affected women’s ability to work is an understatement. In rural Morocco, daily wages for agricultural work have plummeted. While the lockdown has technically been lifted, the after-effects of spending months at home with little work and social interaction are scarring. The economic unease that comes with coming out of a pandemic is hitting uncontracted agricultural workers the hardest, and the women already being shamed for taking the jobs they need are being presented with more challenges. 

There has certainly been an improvement in the overall attitude of gender norms in Morocco. Walking down the neighbourhood of Agdal in Rabat, it’s not uncommon to see a young woman sporting a short haircut or experimenting with her self-expression through fashion. But unfortunately, when it comes to giving women the same labour jobs their male counterparts have, Morocco still has a long way to come. Perhaps the first step is incentivising women to participate in a work culture they have historically been unwelcome in. 

Yasmina Achlim is a Moroccan-American freelance writer who loves good vegan food, living consciously and dressing sustainably