How 50 million Muslim women are revolutionizing the workforce

According to economist Saadia Zahidi, an extra 50 million women in predominantly-Muslim countries have entered the workforce since 2000, transforming the countries in which they live.

'It's actually a young woman in hijab who is solving societal problems around her'

According to UNESCO and World Bank data, more women than men are in university in two-thirds of the 30 countries Saadia Zahidi looked at in her research. The countries all have at least 60 per cent Muslim citizens and a population of over a million. (Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters)
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The ubiquitous tech entrepreneur may no longer be "the man in the hoodie in Silicon Valley," suggested the author of a new book, Fifty Million Rising.

Economist Saadia Zahidi says a quiet revolution is brewing across predominately Muslim countries with an estimated 50 million women, according to data from the International Labour Organization and World Bank, having entered the workforce since 2000.

"In a lot of the Muslim world, it's actually a young woman in hijab who is solving societal problems around her, using her background in science, technology, engineering, math, computer science," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Zahidi, the head of education, gender and work at the World Economic Forum, said these Muslim working women are a critical mass that needs to be built upon.

"Workplaces have changed, society has changed, families have changed and a lot of governments are having to play catch up."

Indonesian youth fill in application forms on laptops at a job fair in Jakarta. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

Zahidi points to the balancing act that governments in predominantly Muslim countries have to deal with in polarized societies, juggling conservative views and religious forces while at the same time meeting the need for infrastructure, child care and social services for the new generation of working women.

But there are also some governments — such as Saudi Arabia, a country with one of the lowest rates of women working outside the home — taking proactive measures, she said.

"Women in Saudi Arabia are getting out of university in higher numbers than places like Brazil and India. If Saudi Arabia wants to diversify its economy beyond oil in the future, they're going to need all of that talent," Zahidi said, referring to statistics based on data from UNESCO and World Bank. 

"So they're laying the ground for a lot more of these women to go into various sectors across the economy."

As these graduates set out to find work, some companies have had to make accommodations in the workplace, such as dedicated floors for women and guaranteed transportation to and from work.

But organizations see these adjustments as an investment, Zahidi said.

"There is this hunger for opportunity. And so there's also this desire to deliver and over-deliver as compared to some of the men around them."

Women make up a formidable economic force and are changing the countries they live in culturally and politically, according to the book 'Fifty Million Rising.' (Alexander Petrenko/Hachette Book Group)

The promise of the gig economy 

In much of the West, the gig economy — temporary or short-term contracts — are seen as disruptive to work, but it provides women access to markets that were previously unattainable in these nations, Zahidi said.

"The gig economy is actually offering, for the first time, a way to have a stable income and to have much more work security than they ever have before."

In Indonesia, many gig platforms are providing childcare, resulting in more control over hours and more choice for whom to work for.

And in Pakistan, where there's a huge shortage of doctors, a female entrepreneur is making it possible for women doctors to work from home. For example, Dr. Sarah Khurram co-founded doctHERs, a service that provides telehealth for women in rural areas or living in poverty who would otherwise never have access to a doctor.

'The third way' 

Zahid spoke to 200 women for her book.

A common phrase brought up by the women — whether in Turkey, Indonesia or Saudi Arabia — is referred to as "a third way" and it involves being responsible for both home and work, she told Tremonti.

"They all felt … they're sort of a transition generation. They don't have a lot to count on in terms of role models from previous generations. There's no road map for them to follow."

"It's very clear that women and men are expected to fulfill their full potential according to Islam," Saadia Zahidi said. 1:45

Often times finding solutions means asking for family to help or hiring help, Zahidi said, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're asking men to play a bigger role.

"The reason they're not pushing on that is because they don't want some of this early access and freedom in to the workforce to start disappearing." 

A quiet approach to change

Zahidi is impressed by the tenacity of the women that are driving these societal changes.

With a millennial generation now having access to the workforce, the role of women will continue to shift and separate from the past, said Zahidi, and women who have to break from what is expected of them won't be an anomaly.

Muslim women are solving societal problems using their background in science, technology, engineering, math and computer science, says Saadia Zahidi. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

One of the most powerful women in Saudi Arabia, Lubna Suliman Olayan, told Zahidi that she wants change but she doesn't want to "break society while doing it."

"I reinterpreted her statement basically as, 'We might not win this revolution by being out on the streets protesting but in a quieter way, by bringing everybody else along, actually we might make this change much more sustainable — not just for ourselves but for our daughters."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.

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