“What does he do? Does he have an apartment?” These are two of the key questions that may be asked if a man in Egypt is asking for the hand of a woman in marriage. Others include the items he will be contributing to the furnishing of the house and other marriage requirements.
While these things are commonly associated with marriage in Egypt and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, recent research by the Economic Research Forum, a regional think tank, has attempted to discover the extent to which factors, such as employment, affect the transition to adulthood.
“Work signals whether men are economically ready for marriage or not,” Ragui Assaad, a professor of planning and public affairs at the University of Minnesota in the US, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “In Egypt, it could take a groom eight years total salary to save for the cost of marriage,” Assaad said in a paper on “Employment’s Role in Enabling and Constraining Marriage in the Middle East and North Africa” written with Caroline Krafft, an assistant professor of economics at St. Catherine University in the US.
The authors found that both employment and the quality of employment matter a great deal for the timing of marriage in Egypt. Being employed in the public sector significantly accelerates marriage, Assaad told the Weekly.
But with public sector jobs becoming increasingly scarce, this has meant that marriage has been delayed for many. The alternatives include the informal private sector because formal private sector jobs are not available for many people, he said. Informal work means work without a contract or social insurance.
Men can search for public sector work for several years, remain unemployed, and still marry earlier if they succeed in obtaining public sector work than if they had gone straight into private sector informal work, the paper points out.
The drop in the availability of public sector jobs has affected low-income groups more than the better off, Assaad said. He explained that in the past acquiring a university degree, regardless of social class, guaranteed a public sector job. Today, having a university education does not guarantee access to the formal job market, and things will depend on the social income group an individual is from.
According to Assaad, access to formal jobs by university graduates depends on the education of the father. Those whose fathers did not receive a higher education, usually meaning they come from a lower-income group, are often unable to access formal private sector jobs.
“The private sector uses the social income group as an indicator of quality,” Assaad said.
Those who can access the formal private sector job market have a degree of higher education and are from a higher-income group, he said.
Why does the private sector choose employees based on social income? “It is an imperfect indicator because there is no real indicator of the skills of individuals,” Assaad said. Private sector employers see a certificate which may not give them a lot of information, so they assume that skills come from being born into a higher social income group where there are more opportunities for learning a second language or having greater cultural exposure, for instance.
The scarcity of public sector jobs has not only been affecting men. Women have also been affected. Assaad pointed out that with formal public sector work opportunities dropping, many educated women who used to work now prefer to stay at home. For them, informal work is not attractive because it may involve risks such as harassment which could harm their reputations and affect their chances to marry.
“The fallback position for men is to work in the informal sector. For women, the fallback position is to stay at home,” he said. “Informality dominates the job market, and it is not attractive to women,” Assaad said, pointing out that most work opportunities in Egypt (67 per cent) are in firms employing fewer than 10 people.
Having a public sector job was also found to be central to the decision of women to work after marriage. Women who had worked in the private sector before marriage often left work after it, according to Assaad, while if they worked in the public sector or on their own account they continued to work after marriage.
The percentage of women working in the private sector dropped from five to six per cent to two per cent after marriage, he pointed out.
“There are more women graduating from universities than men, and women are not so utilised in production. That is a waste of human resources,” Assaad said. He attributed this to the fact that working conditions, such as long hours and long commutes, in the private sector are often not suitable for married women in Egypt. The private sector does not make many compromises to cut working hours to accommodate women, because they have a lot of possible employees to choose from, Assaad said.
He lamented the fact that growth in job opportunities in the formal sector was very slow, saying that “the private sector is mostly capital and energy intensive but not labour intensive.” That needs to change to create more formal jobs, he said.
To attract women back to the workforce, Assaad suggested that the private sector allow part-time work, or telecommuting, and that it pay women an hourly wage rather than monthly.
He also called for a solution to be found to the problem of harassment because it was a problem facing women in the informal sector.
It was a main reason why women did not work in small establishments, as they did not like to be left alone with their employer, he said. “Women prefer to work in big establishments with many women co-workers, as it gives them a type of protection,” Assaad said.
Egyptian law imposes a greater cost on the employer when employing a woman than a man because of maternity leave and exceptions related to working hours. This discourages employers from employing women, Krafft told the Weekly, pointing out that in Jordan the government pays the salary of workers on maternity leave and not the employer.
But while there may be solutions to some of these problems, others will need longer-term change of culture. As Krafft pointed out, “the preference to work in the public sector is not only a matter of wages, but also a matter of prestige.” This can make it difficult to encourage people to take up entrepreneurship, she added.
Nonetheless, she said there had been changes over time and formal private sector jobs were becoming more accepted.
“The increasing scarcity of public sector jobs has been causing expectations about what it takes to be economically ready for marriage to change,” the authors write in their paper. “Marriage markets may be adjusting to the changing economic situations of young men.”