An unprecedented migration of women, particularly millennial women, has taken place from home to work across the Muslim world in the last 15 years. Millions have joined the workforce for the first time, in a movement where economics trumps culture.
The Muslim world is not a monolithic body, but comprised of a diverse set of economies, cultures and geographies. Most of the world’s Muslims live in 30 emerging markets, in which they are the majority of the population. Together, these economies comprise 12% of the world’s GDP and one-fifth of its population.
These include countries with high per capita incomes such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait; upper middle income countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, Jordan and Tunisia; and lower middle income economies such as Morocco, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Bangladesh and Tajikistan.
Muslims are also younger than the global average, with a median age of 23 rather than 28 - a result of the Muslim world’s own "baby boom". Young Muslims are now the most educated in their countries’ histories, holding new attitudes and using new technologies.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the extraordinary rise of working women in this new generation:
1. Women are now the majority of university students in the Muslim world. Traditionally the minority in education, women are coming out ahead of men today. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country, women’s university enrolment has increased from 2% in 1970 to nearly 33% today, while men’s enrolment has increased from 4% to 29% over the same time period.
In Saudi Arabia ten years ago, about 30% of university-age women attended university. Today, half of them go - a higher proportion than in Mexico, China, Brazil and India. This is the base of talent for the new white-collar workforce of the Muslim world.
2. STEM education for women is a particular success story, setting up women in the Muslim world for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In most countries across the world, women make up a much smaller proportion of those skilled in coding and the sciences more broadly. But there are five countries where, among students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), women outnumber men. Two of these, Brunei and Kuwait, are Muslim-majority economies.
Across another 18 countries, women make up 40% or more of STEM students. More than half of these are also Muslim-majority countries, including Tunisia, Qatar, Algeria, Oman, Malaysia, Jordan, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and the UAE. In Saudi Arabia, 38% of students in those fields are women, and in Iran, 34%. In the UK, 36% are women, while in the US, it’s 30%.
3. Fifty million women have joined the workforce for the first time since the turn of the millennium. An unexpected, underreported revolution has been happening for women, with the arrival of the largest and most educated cohort ever to have entered their economies’ labour markets at any one time. Just after the turn of the millennium, there were around 100 million working women in the Muslim world's emerging markets. Today, that number has swelled to nearly 155 million, a 50% increase in just 15 years.
Working women now represent 30% of the 450 million women in Muslim-majority economies. Labour force participation rates vary widely - 74% in Kazakhstan, 53% in Indonesia and Malaysia, 42% in the UAE, 33% in Turkey, 26% in Pakistan and 21% in Saudi Arabia - but are growing faster for women than for men in nearly all Muslim-majority economies.
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4. Their combined earnings would make Muslim women the world’s 16th richest country. Working women and their disposable income represent a huge new market, with earnings that amount to nearly $1 trillion. The new generation of working women are worldly and digitally connected. They are tapping into and creating new demand in a wide variety of fields, from education, health and food to finance, fashion and IT.
While the initial investment in girls’ and women’s education has already begun to pay off for their economies, there is more to come. If equal participation in the workforce were achieved, Muslim countries could add another $5.7 trillion to their income. In the Middle East alone, if female labour force participation rose to its full potential by 2025, the region’s GDP would spike by 47%, according to McKinsey. Even if female participation across the region were to rise "only" to match the best performing country in the region today, there would be an 11% increase in GDP.
5. There is some historical precedent for this economic revolution. While the rapid rise of working women across the Muslim world is new, today’s cohort of ambitious businesswomen can look to history for a role model. The first convert to Islam was a businesswoman, a wealthy merchant named Khadija, who hired the Prophet Muhammad and sent him on a trading mission from Mecca to Syria. She became his wife, and financed the supporter of the new religion in its early days.
6. Globalization, technology, ambition and economic necessity have created a 'perfect storm' for the rise of working women in the emerging markets of the Muslim world. Globalization and technology have opened up a range of economic opportunities for women, and new role models beyond their own communities. Women, especially those with education, are choosing to exercise their agency and empowerment outside the home, stepping into a realm unforeseen by their mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation. In other words, a new generation of ambitious and educated Muslim women is leaning in.
In addition, the traditional breadwinner and caregiver model of their parents’ generation is no longer viable to sustain the life that many women - and men - want for themselves and their children. Dual-income households have become the norm for middle-class urban couples with aspirations for social mobility.
7. When it comes to balancing work and family, women still carry most of the responsibility. While many young middle-class couples in Jakarta, Istanbul or Jeddah now have more in common with peers in London, New York or Hong Kong than with their parents regarding the division of labour in the home, the responsibility for care work and unpaid work still rests largely with women. In Turkey, for example, women spend nearly three times as much time on unpaid work as men do. Urban professional Muslim women often tap into the availability of cheap domestic support to manage household chores and very often rely on strong family networks for childcare.
8. Businesses are tapping into this new trend - and policymakers need to catch up. Working women and their skills, tastes and earnings are no longer a niche market. Local and multinational businesses have taken notice of this enormous potential. Many are now investing in specific strategies to recruit and retain more women, and are designing practices that fit the local context and culture.
They also recognize that the consumer segment represented by working women with agency over their earnings is vastly different from the indirect consumption of women who are in traditional caregiving roles. They are beginning to design products and services for this new market. Governments need to catch up to the new realities of the growing cohort of female workers, employers, taxpayers and consumers, in particular by broadening access to finance, transport and technology, encouraging female entrepreneurship and incentivizing businesses to hire, retain and promote women.
9. Gig platforms and e-commerce are an unprecedented avenue of economic opportunity for Muslim women. Tech-savvy entrepreneurial women across the Muslim world are tapping into digital opportunities in fields where they have a comparative advantage in understanding the market. Egypt’s Raye7 is a ride-sharing service devised by entrepreneur Samira Negm, solving both traffic congestion and safe transport. Pakistani start-up doctHERS uses digital consultations to connect remote rural communities with "housewives" who also happen to be qualified doctors. Indonesia’s Hijup claims to be the largest online retailer of "modest fashion", catering to devout, fashionable women with disposable incomes. All of these enterprises took fresh, female perspectives on familiar problems.
Other gig platforms are catching on to the "women’s market". Ladyjek in Indonesia provides women-only motorcycle rides through overcrowded cities. Mumm foods in Egypt is connecting skilled female cooks with thousands who want healthy, home-cooked meals delivered to their offices. Careem in Saudi Arabia is training a new cohort of women drivers, in anticipation of women being able to drive legally by summer 2018. The gig economy is a new path to flexible, more secure livelihoods for women in the Muslim world’s emerging markets, often for the first time, and unlike in the West where it is often synonymous with precarious work.
10. The implications of this trend go well beyond the borders of the Muslim world. As the numbers of working Muslim women grow, the implications of their rise go well beyond the borders of local markets. One in ten of us on the planet is a Muslim woman. There are 800 million in total. That’s more than the combined populations of the US, Russia and Brazil. In fact, there are already more working women across the Muslim world than there are in the US or the EU. Their economic fortunes will determine the prosperity and stability of their own countries, and, by consequence, of the global economy.
Saadia Zahidi is Head of the Centre for the New Economy and Society and a Member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum. Her book, Fifty Million Rising, is out now.