Women in Egypt’s labor force: Between the labor and marriage market

Women’s representation in the labor market is still low compared to the ‎marriage market

Women in Egypt constitute nearly half of the economically active population; however, and despite ‎near parity in education attainment, their contribution to economic development is still low – ‎which hurts the country’s desired economic growth on the long-run. ‎

Official World Bank statistics claim that female participation in Egypt’s labor force (FPLP) stood at 23% in 2014. This puts Egypt amongst the world’s lowest rates in FPLP, according to studies.

Within this context, a recently-drafted study – titled “The Determinants of Young Women’s Value in the Marriage Market: The Role of Education” and prepared by assistant professor at the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Department of ‎Economics Dina Abdel Fattah – investigates the effect of education and employment on women’s “value” in the marriage market and the correlation between marriage and female employment.

Coining the term “marriage market”
The godfather behind the economics of marriage is scholar Gary Becker, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1992. He viewed marriage as a “market model” in which there are concepts such as the value of the people getting married, rational decision-making about who to marry or what direction to take, and gains or benefits based on certain skills of each person in the marriage.

“Becker’s marriage market analysis starts with a simple competitive market model in which there are identical women (on one side of the market) and identical men (on the other side),” according to Shoshana Grossbard in her paper “Marriage and Marriage Markets.”

In an interview, the late Becker explained that his marriage market model “is not an organized market the way the stock market is or a bazaar is in the Middle East, but it is a market nevertheless with the property that there are different people in this who are looking to get married.” Based on the economic value, the benefits and the skills of the other person, the decision to get married is made – hence, it becomes a marriage market.

Role of marriage jewelry
According to Abdel Fattah, jewelry is traditionally of utmost importance when it comes to asking a woman’s hand in marriage.

Her paper argues that jewelry determines the value of women in the marriage market on one hand. On the other hand, the higher the cost ‎of the jewelry, the more the groom is respected by the bride’s family. Thus, the bridal jewelry is ‎the yardstick against which the marriage market’s investments returns are measured.

The intersection between the marriage market and human capital ‎
Education yields two different returns: better job opportunities in the labor ‎market with higher earnings and increasing prospects of a desirable groom, meaning that it causes a ‎sizeable perceived marriage market return. ‎ ‎

‎“Investments in education are equally fruitful in the marriage market as compared to the labor ‎market,” Abdel Fattah’s paper argues, highlighting that parents place a significant value on their daughter’s education ‎as they believe that having a good education maximizes their chances of bagging a desirable spouse.‎

As such, women with a primary education or illiterate women are less valued in the marriage market ‎compared to their educated counterparts; however, highly educated women are less likely to enter ‎the marriage market as early as women with low or no education.

“This is reflected in the cost of ‎jewelry gifted to the bride by the groom,” the paper states. “Women with university degrees have the highest average ‎cost of jewelry compared to other educational levels.” ‎

All in all, according to the paper, education, with all its stages, plays a proactive role in decreasing marriage rates.

Employed women “frowned upon” in marriage market
On the other hand, women’s representation in the labor market is still low compared to the ‎marriage market. Abdel Fattah argues that married women prefer to thoroughly ditch the labor market ‎because of the lack of decent employment opportunities for them in the public and private sectors. ‎

However, unemployed women get married early on because they are more likely viewed as “marriage material” compared to ‎their employed counterparts. Accordingly, employed women are more likely to enter the marriage market at later stages in their lives. Once they decide to enter the market, their value – and hence their price of jewelry – increases, unlike unemployed women. ‎

Promoting women’s economic empowerment is key to economic development ‎
As a large segment of the society still pressures women to get married early, marriage is largely viewed as ‎women’s ultimate form of validation, which requires a unified comprehensive strategy to be put in place to challenge the cultural norms about marriage, the paper recommends. ‎

Abdel Fattah also calls for improving work circumstances for women, adding that harmonization of the labor and family laws is therefore an imperative in enabling women to spend less ‎time on household chores. ‎

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