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Why WE Lead: Education is Key to Overcoming Gender Stereotypes

Gender equality and governance expert Dr. Jill Derby writes for Why WE Lead on the importance of education in overcoming gender stereotypes in MENA and the connection to economic empowerment.

Article by Jill Derby, Ph.D. February 7, 2019 //   4 minute read


Why WE Lead is the George W. Bush Institute’s policy and research that investigates economic advancement and the role of women’s leadership in the Middle East, North Africa, (MENA) and Afghanistan. This body of work runs parallel to WE Lead, our women’s economic and leadership training program. 

Jill Derby is the chair of the board of trustees of The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani and a senior governance consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. She has worked for more than 15 years to advance effectiveness in higher education institutions, and in 2011 received a U.S. Senate appointment to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which advises the U.S. Secretary of Education on higher education policy. 

A gender equality and governance expert, Derby writes for Why WE Lead on the importance of education in overcoming gender stereotypes in MENA and the connection to economic empowerment. 

Gender stereotypes are preventing women from fully participating in the economic development of Middle Eastern countries. Education plays a critical role in bringing about societal change and cannot be understated. Without a shift in cultural attitudes and biases, reform efforts granting women greater rights and access to economic opportunity will be resisted and thwarted.

The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani’s Center for Gender and Development Studies is undertaking work that emphasizes education and aims to impact issues of gender equity and women’s empowerment within Iraq and potentially within the larger MENA region.

  • developing curricula in universities across the MENA region
  • training teachers
  • reviewing school textbooks (years 1-12) to make recommendations to the appropriate Ministry
  • founding a gender studies network across the region
  • creating an online platform
  • providing training workshops and gender studies scholarships
  • producing short films on gender, radio programs, and podcasts

Families exert a strong influence on their daughters, and cultural norms continue to favor early marriage. Women are expected to focus on childcare and domestic activities inside their homes. Saudi women can legally drive now, gaining freedom of movement, but not without the consent of their male guardians. Men play a dominant role in Middle Eastern societies, and changing their attitudes is key to reframing perspectives on gender roles.

Much has been written recently about the need for economic diversification in MENA countries to achieve fiscal sustainability.  Oil alone will no longer provide on-going prosperity. Central to diversification efforts is the need to lower barriers women face in participating in the workforce – barriers which are largely expressed in gender stereotypes and cultural biases.  Ending poverty, for example, a goal widely desired, is hampered by women’s inability to access work outside the home.  

Clearly, the economic imperative facing these countries argues for an agenda which opens workforce opportunities to half their human resources, women.  Legislation and policy initiatives are potential solutions, but they are limited by cultural resistance. 

Legislation is one leg of a three-legged stool that will open avenues for women’s inclusion. The other legs are institutional opportunities, such as education and training, and cultural acceptance.  The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani’s Center for Gender and Development Studies offers a model which underscores education as a key component of any development efforts which seek to expand women’s workforce participation in MENA societies (see sidebar) Its focus on curricula, textbooks, and teacher training is central to accomplishing a generational shift in cultural attitudes and gender stereotypes.  

Girls and boys internalize the gender norms their cultures affirm early on. Education, especially early education that counters deeply-ingrained gender stereotypes, is a key element in dismantling the barriers to women’s full participation in economic development and leadership.   

Education will be a major catalyst in advancing the blueprint MENA countries have adopted as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and other plans, such as UAE Vision 2021 and Saudi Vision 2030.  

MENA leaders recognize that the framework of globalization and the growth of renewable energy demand new economic strategies, which include lowering the barriers to women’s contributions. They recognize that gender inclusion and gender equity are essential features of a prosperous future.