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Moving towards a culture of work in youth education

May 04,2015 - Last updated at May 04,2015

Reading a recent statement by the prime minister about Jordan’s failure to tackle the female unemployment issue, I reflected upon a phrase used at one of the conferences I attended, “fixes that fail”, realising that many practitioners often discuss successes while mentioning very few failures.

However, literature shows that even in the case of training and employment programmes there are very few successes.

More importantly, implementers showcasing worldwide efforts at “gender mainstreaming in the workforce” often omit the word “culture” from their vocabulary.

This omission has great implications for addressing youth unemployment in the Arab world because culture plays a pivotal role in the employment puzzle, especially in regards to women.

The failure of efforts to gender mainstream the workforce in the Arab world can be attributed to employment programmes that do not meet the cultural realities of the youth.

There is the culture of the private sector, of employment programmes, and of communities and families, to name a few. These cultures may not always adhere to the same values, the same goals or to the same gender norms. But in their totality, they create a “culture of work” which youth must learn to negotiate.

Unfortunately, a “system approach to development” was introduced, which maps the variables of intervention in a system in order to inform attempts at scaling the intervention.

It treats variables in the employment space as constants that would react consistently and predictably to a variety of systematic interventions.

This approach assumes that systems would help better organise our efforts in both education and employment, but in my 10 years of work in the employment sector, I have learned that employment is probably the least systematic of development issues.

This means interventions that treat employment education as an equation of inputs and outputs are bound to become fixes that fail, unless we look deeply into the surrounding culture that alters these variables.

Hence the importance of recognising and addressing the culture of work, understanding the real needs of communities and underlying cultural obstacles to employment.

In my research I have found that the economic emancipation of women can only be achieved if the actions required are seen as both desirable and legitimate by employers, communities and families. Once that happens, we can expect women to transition smoothly from schooling to the workforce.

To tackle the desirability component of women in the workforce, deep-rooted cultural constraints, especially in education, need to be closely examined.

Throughout their schooling, girls are subjected to messages that put greater emphasis on domestic skills rather than employment skills, while males are burdened with the role of being the sole economic provider of the household.

These messages clearly assign gender roles in productivity and influence the social desirability of men and women assuming these roles.

Reflecting on Jordan’s experience, the only way women can be economically empowered is by coupling employment services with a culture of work that views female employment as a desirable goal.

This cultural change begins at school, where values and ideologies are shaped early in a person’s life.

Given that teachers spend 80 per cent of their time teaching from textbooks, we cannot neglect the role the school curricula play in shaping ideologies and beliefs about women and economics.

Yet, in Jordan and the Arab world at large, the link among education, the desirability of female employment and the culture of work has often been neglected when addressing issues of female economic empowerment.

To legitimise women in the workforce we need private sector role models to speak up, not just advocates from the donor community or NGOs.

But the private sector remains silent, benefiting most from youth employment programmes by offloading the cost of human resource training.

Within youth unemployment circles, we refer to the private sector as our partners when in reality they are the true beneficiaries.

Meanwhile, youths are referred to as the official “target beneficiaries” when in reality they are the “fuel” that runs the employment engine.

As long as the private sector remains mute, the legitimacy of female participation in the workforce as a goal is undermined.

How many more “fixes that fail” can we continue to endure in youth employment?

We must begin to realise that the root of the problem is embedded in our education system and perpetuated by the private sector.

Our underlying work must be in building the desirability and legitimacy of female employment in order to create a generation that promotes a culture of work for all. 

The writer is founder of World of Letters, dedicated to research and promoting quality education in the MENA region developing gender-sensitive resources in Arabic language that are aligned to the needs of the job market. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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