According to the latest national figures as reported by the International Labour Organization (ILO), in 2018, the labor force participation rate of Egyptian men was 67.7 percent, while it was only 18.4 percent for women. In the ILO’s more recent estimates for 2019, the figures only slightly improve at 70.9 and 21.9 percent respectively.
Unsurprisingly, such figures would suggest that large parts of the economy are dominated by men, with many workplaces and offices being completely male.
Though, many women still choose to work and pursue careers in such male-dominated fields. While technically, there are no legal barriers to women opting to work in the majority of Egypt’s sectors, social and cultural attitudes prove to be major obstacles to them being treated fairly and equally as their male colleagues, which also carries the price of missed opportunities.
Business Forward speaks to two such women about their experiences of working in offices and fields dominated by men.
Farah, a mechanical engineering graduate, works in the solar energy sector and says her field is almost entirely dominated by men. She says she consistently faces issues in her line of work because of her gender.
Farah has been working in the field of engineering for four years and one of the main challenges she comes across is “people assuming that I, of course, will shift careers at some point because I can’t take it [and] being questioned about my choice by people I am meeting for the first time [in professional contexts].”
In her line of work, Farah has to have meetings with other businesses and partners and is frequently accompanied by a male colleague specialized in business development. However, even when people she is meeting with know she is an engineer and qualified to answer their technical queries, she says they will still look to her male colleague for answers and opinions, despite his lack of knowledge on those areas.
Men are also called “engineers left and right, but I am referred to as Miss” and occasionally, suitable work gear specially made for females will be unavailable.
Nour* works in Public Relations (PR) for a petrochemicals company and mainly in government relations (both in Egypt and internationally) along with other executives and clients. Her Cairo office has around 12 men and only one other woman. “In my field, everyone is older and male,” she says.
Nour did not know this sector was male dominated before she took the job and says there have been many instances of men trying to show dominance through displays of ‘toxic masculinity.’ The term’s origins date back to men’s self-help and therapy movements in the 1980s and 1990s trying to tackle harmful forms of masculinity. It has become increasingly used in gender discourse since the 2010s to describe traditional and stereotypical forms of masculinity which dictate that men should be aggressive, emotionless, unempathetic, competitive and dominant.
She reports similar problematic behavior in work meetings. “In a meeting or a professional setting, someone might say ‘habibty’ to me. Even a non-Egyptian guy once told me ‘listen darling’” she says. Additionally, Nour says men will also talk down to her and assume they know better than her, while making her feel unwelcome. This kind of treatment has come to be defined by the term mansplaining, where men consciously or unconsciously will speak to women in a patronising and disrespectful manner on the basis of gender alone. “There’s this attitude I sense of ‘you’ve taken our place.’ It is extremely condescending to be in a meeting and he thinks because I’m a female, that I don’t understand and will talk to me in the manner of ‘I will explain to you.’”
Among the major obstacles Nour has had to endure in her job is “the culture of masculinity in the office and in this line of work, which makes people treat women differently. They see there are some tasks that I won’t be able to do. Sometimes, when I go to a meeting, my input is disregarded and I need to prove myself so they can take me seriously. They don’t take me seriously just because I’m a girl and young.”
Nour says that there is a pervasive idea that young women do not take their work seriously and are not professional enough for certain tasks, so she constantly has to work harder than her male colleagues to prove herself. Sometimes, even her extra efforts can be in vain.
“They don’t take women’s work seriously. Doesn’t matter how hard she works. If I were a 30-year-old man dressed in a suit, they would have looked me at me totally differently.” Nour adds that the same tasks performed by a man would automatically be held in higher regard.
When Nour used to work in an office that was staffed mostly by women, her experiences were completely different. “When I used to work for a PR agency in a different field that was all girls, I didn’t sense this attitude at all, that no matter how important their work is, it is essentially unimportant just because they are women.”
Obstacles and challenges from the beginning
Farah knew she had chosen a career that was male-dominated but went ahead with following her passions in spite of the fact. “I knew the statistics, but it didn’t really shape my decision.”
She attributes her desire to study and pursue a career in engineering to her specific case of having gone to an all-girls school. “When you are in an all-girls school, the whole idea of science is for boys and non-science is girls’ forte is way less pronounced. I never felt there was a reason why I shouldn’t be great at mathematics or physics. I enjoyed them and that was that. I chose Mechanical Engineering because at the time it seemed like the field that I would enjoy studying, would put me on the path to have a career in the field I am interested in and contribute positively to society.”
Farah’s struggle for acceptance in her chosen field began from the start of her studies, however. A major “challenge was that while both my parents knew women who studied Mechanical Engineering, they were still not comfortable with my choice 100 percent and double checked with me a lot if I really want to. This second guessing made it seem like some sort of insurmountable daunting task that I have committed to and might not be fit to finish successfully just because of my gender.”
“Then I guess the issue became the second guessing from random people you meet. Not my friends, but people you meet as a freshman and you do that usual conversation ‘what do you want to declare etc.’ and I say Mechanical Engineering and they are like ‘why?’ It’s just annoying. It didn’t make me rethink my choice really but just this constant doubt gets on your nerves.”
“It gets better when people know you, of course,” Nour says.
There are some situations “I don’t know how to deal with and they really make me angry” where the men are particularly sexist towards her. “It could be a task that I don’t want to do or I try to postpone it as much as possible” so she can avoid interacting with those men.
“Honestly, people do change with time, even if inside them they still have toxic masculinity and issues with women in their field, they get over it and understand that we actually work seriously too and they stop their [toxic] behavior.”
Farah says: “While the random questioning in amazement continued, I grew immune to it and was always able to anticipate it and move on. After actually finding my feet in my major like any other student I knew I made the right choice.”
*Name has been changed upon respondent’s request to protect their identity.