Women’s labor force participation and (un)employment in Iran

This article discusses female labor force participation and employment in Iran. The objective is to reveal whether women’s educational and social achievements over the past years have improved their position in the labor force.

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The Islamic Republic of Iran, once the Persian Empire, has always been a major player in the Middle East. In this article you will find a comparison between Iran’s demographic, social and economic statistics and the average worldwide ones presented. It is important to keep in mind that while some statistics are publically available, actual research data is extremely meager. Inquiries are often conducted and provided only by members of the Iranian government.

Employment in Iran: let’s take a look a back:

Iran’s economy, which was one of the Middle East’s most advanced before 1979 (the year of the Islamic Revolution), has been plagued since then by mismanagement, international sanctions, and systematic graft. Iran has the world’s second-largest reserves of natural gas and fourth-largest reserves of crude oil. Although the 2015 nuclear agreement briefly allowed Tehran to expand its oil exports, attract greater foreign investments and increase trade, that economic boost did not help many Iranians, except for the ruling clerics and IRGC. A main reason for this is the widespread corruption in the country and the failing government institutions. Along with this, falling living standards, high unemployment, lack of freedom and outrage over collapsing state, have prompted widespread ongoing protests.

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Additionally, corruption has been, ever since then, utterly omnipresent with the government failing to address the widespread popular anger. The only cases in which criminal penalties have been applied for corruption subjectively, often pursue religious minorities, political opposition or businessmen who are inconvenient for the ruling clique. 

The mismanagement and the corruption have (in)directly resulted in the (un)employment in Iran which is noticeably high among young people and women.

The Iranian Constitution provides in Article 28 that “Everyone has the right to choose any occupation they wish, if it is not contrary to Islam and the public interests, and does not infringe the rights of others. The government has the duty, with due consideration of the need of society for different kinds of work, to provide every citizen with the opportunity to work, and to create equal conditions for obtaining it”.

Let’s take a look at the reality of employment in Iran which prevails the law:

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*Iran’s unemployment rate according to Statista

Iran’s unemployment rate has been above 10% for the past 10 years and this rate is estimated to have peaked in 2014, when it reached 14%. On the other hand, many of those who are considered employed in Iran are also thought to be underemployed.

Overall, global unemployment rate of women is 6%. However, in Iran it is 19,7%, which is almost 4 times higher. In the Islamic Republic, male and female unemployment rates of 10.2% and 19.7% respectively, suggest continued gender-reliant differences on the labor market. Iranian women’s participation rate in labor force is one of the lowest compared to many other countries and Iran’s failing government policies are to blame.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch documented how in this unfair environment, and in the face of government policies that do not afford adequate protection against discrimination in the public and private sectors, women are marginalized in the economy.

Women’s rate of unemployment is twice as high as this of men.

Back in the time of his election, president Hassan Rouhani promised that all Iranians would benefit equal opportunities on the labor market. Yet, without serious reforms in Iran’s legal code and labor regulations, Rouhani’s rhetoric will remain unemployable in the daily reality of a critical constituency in Iran and one which makes up half of the country’s population: Iranian women.

Moreover, during his reelection campaign, president Rouhani criticized women’s marginalization in the economy and vowed to increase their presence in decision-making roles in his government. He did not, however, select a female minister, despite expectations by many that he would do so, including members of parliament.

In fact, women in Iran confront an array of legal and social barriers, restricting not only their lives but also their livelihoods, and contributing to starkly unequal economic outcomes.

Although women comprise of over 50 percent of university graduates, their participation in the labor force (employment in Iran) is poor.

According to World Bank, almost half of all students in the country’s universities are women. But only 1/5 of all university students are employed. However, among those who are employed 4/5 are men. In other words, among the educated Iranians, women can barely find a job after university.

The 2017 Global Gender Gap report, produced by the World Economic Forum, ranks Iran among the last ten countries (142 out of 149) for gender equality, including equality in economic participation. Moreover, these disparities exist at every turn of the economic hierarchy; women are severely underrepresented in senior public positions and as private sector managers. This significant participation gap in the Iranian labor market has occurred in a context in which Iranian authorities have extensively violated women’s economic and social rights. Specifically, the government has created and enforced numerous discriminatory laws and regulations limiting women’s participation in the job market.

Nevertheless, women’s employment in Iran is generally not considered Islamic in Iranian society. Several reports show that women are paid less than men on the job market. Even when employed, women often receive unequal remuneration for work done equally in value to men and may also be overworked and underpaid, in many cases even without having any contractual agreement.

Iran loses a lot of income due to the gap in women’s labor force participation. Iranian women are in a constant battle against social stereotypes. Women share a common experience of insufficient recognition of their roles and undervaluation of their work.  The question is – how does this contribute to Iran’s economy, while it is on the brink of collapse?