As Covid-19 swells the ranks of unemployed women in the Arab world, surging demand for digital skills could help many of them find work in a region where only one in four women has a job. The pandemic has taken an particularly heavy toll on retail, tourism and hospitality jobs traditionally held by women, but experts say those in a position to retrain could tap into growth areas like digital marketing, e-commerce and online customer make stronger.
“This can be a tremendous possibility. These are areas where you’ll reskill someone slightly quickly,” said Jasmine di Florio, senior vice president at Education for Employment (EFE), a job training non-profit for young people in the Middle East and North Africa.
“We want to teach young women a wide variety of digital skills but we also want to continue to teach them human skills – such things as empathy, teamwork, leadership… (that) are in even greater demand now because such a lot is going digital.”
The fourth industrial revolution – a term referring to the new era of digital advances that is changing the way people live and work – is expected to double job opportunities for women in the region by 2030, according to a 2020 McKinsey study.
Many women are already finding new opportunities – infrequently by putting their new-found tech skills to work in jobs where they’ve an innate edge over men.
One of EFE’s trainees, Walaa Shahahdeh, who has her own trade repairing smartphones, said her products and services were in high demand among women in her conservative Jordanian community who did not want men seeing personal photos on their devices.
“Technology is constantly evolving. It’s important to retain up-to-the-minute… because new devices retain coming out and repairs will never stop,” said Shahahdeh, 30, who comes from the Tafileh governorate in south-central Jordan.
“As a result of high usage right through coronavirus because of remote learning and make money working from home, devices are breaking down more incessantly and I’m getting more calls.”
The pandemic is expected to push 700,000 Middle Eastern women out of work in 2020 – approximately 40% of the 1.7 million complete jobs expected to be missing, according to aid organisation Oxfam.
That is despite women in the Middle East and North Africa only accounting for a quarter of the workforce – the world’s lowest rate of female participation in the labour market.
In hard-hit countries like Lebanon, where an Aug. 4 explosion compounded the affect of a financial crisis and Covid-19, the number of unemployed women in June 2020 used to be up 63% compared with figures from 2018 and 2019, according to UN Women.
New job prospects could supply some relief, though the extra burden of unpaid work – such as childcare and supervising remote schooling, is likely to widen the digital hole between women and men in Arab states.
That could intent retraining is even more of a challenge for women, said Manuel Langendorf, a researcher on digital transformation in the region.
“People may have access to the internet but still you’re going to find a large number of families across the region that don’t have a couple of laptops or desktop computers,” said Langendorf, adding that men incessantly have precedence when the usage of circle of relatives devices.
“That also affects the way women will be in a position, and are at the present time in a position, to upskill or reskill.”
The digital hole between women and men in Arab countries had already increased from 19% to 24% between 2013 and 2019, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
Gender differences in internet access differ widely across the region, and inside countries too.
Women in rural areas face “two divides at the same time” and risk lacking out on a large number of the promising job prospects of the evolving digital economy, Langendorf said.
“Many of the digital economy across the region is based in urban areas… so the talent is drawn to that but people who don’t live there have (fewer) opportunities to take part and memorize from that knowledge exchange,” he added.
The switch to distance learning right through the pandemic has made it easier for many of us to access training and study programmes, then again.
When lockdowns came into force in March, EFE across the region quickly shifted its training online, adding new components focused on digital and social media skills.
Following the change, women’s enrollment rose to 65% on some courses, up from the standard 50-50 split between women and men.
Menna Fathy, 23, who lives in the Egyptian port city of Suez, some 130 km (80 miles) from the capital, said having the ability to access the training remotely had been an unforeseen boon.
“Whether I had to trip to Cairo on a daily basis for a month it would have been draining. The online option used to be a blessing,” said Fathy, who found an insurance job at a bank soon after.
Even if private-sector employers have been badly affected by the pandemic and opportunities are scarce, there is still value in helping women gain skills today, di Florio said.
“We found a surge of youth and women who need to retain learning despite the fact that they realize they’re not going to receive a job the next day,” she said.
Approximately 44% of women in the region cited limited policies on work-life balance as the main impediment for keeping a job and said policies that let them work remotely and receive digital training were priorities, the McKinsey outline found.
EFE’s trainees have been learning to market their skills online and use freelance platforms to find part-time work, helping connect women seeking bendy jobs with employers.
“The gig economy can in point of fact work for them,” di Florio said.
“But we want to ensure that they’re getting paid a living wage and that they have got access to all potential opportunities and customers on those platforms.”
(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.)
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