Opening Remarks at the Women’s Economic Empowerment Forum 2018

Remarks delivered in Tunis, Tunisia on November 13, 2018.


Excellences, Mesdames et Messieurs les ministres.

Je suis ravie d’être ici avec vous, pour un sujet qui me touche au cœur. Permettez-moi de remercier la Ministre Labidi, le Ministre Ladhari et le gouvernement tunisien de leur accueil chaleureux.

Permettez-moi aussi de continuer en anglais.

It has been a year since we launched the Forum in Cairo, and when the OECD released our report, Women’s Economic Empowerment in MENA Countries: The Impact of legal frameworks.

That report showed that many MENA women were being held back from joining the labour force, or from holding quality jobs, because of legal provisions that unfairly discriminated against them. These included family laws, labour laws and business regulations.

Since then, we have seen that a momentum for change is building.

I enjoyed listening to Minister Labidi’s remarks, about the progress Tunisia has made in improving women’s access to economic opportunity, through various initiatives. And other nations in the region are also making progress. I am sorry that Minister Nasr cannot be with us, but we should recognise that she is one of eight female Cabinet Ministers in Egypt – the most in Egypt’s history –highlighted what Egypt has been doing. Although there is more to do, it’s important to recognise things are moving.

For example, we have seen important legal reforms in many countries: Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon have repealed laws that allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims. This is an important step, but there are still 10 countries in the world where this is allowed.

Indeed, violence against women is horrifyingly prevalent in all countries; OECD data shows that 31% of women worldwide have experienced violence at least once in their lifetime.

Part of this is due to patriarchal and cultural norms and attitudes that do not respect women and impede their rights. But it’s also a case of social acceptance. The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index indicates that 28% of women worldwide justify domestic violence under certain circumstances. In Algeria it is 52% and Morocco 32%.

This is why steps the region is taking are so important. Such as Egypt, which has launched a 2030 National Woman’s Strategy and Morocco launched ICRAM II[1], a new plan for gender equality.  The UAE has also adopted an equal pay law.

Women in the MENA region today are increasingly qualified to seize opportunities.

In some countries, they surpass MENA men in tertiary enrolment rates: over the past decade[2], women’s tertiary enrolment rates almost doubled from 24% to 42%, exceeding men’s enrolment rates – as well as the world average – of 39%[3].

In some cases, MENA women outstrip OECD countries in enrolment in STEM studies – often the key to unlocking lucrative careers.[4]

For example, in 2014, Saudi women made up 59% of total students enrolled in Computer Science, while British women made up only 16% of Computer Science students and American women only 14%. In Egypt, a huge 43% of STEM students are women.

However, these skills and capabilities do not translate into good opportunities at the workforce.

The female labour force participation rate in the region remains the lowest in the world at only 20.6%, with little progress in the past decade.[5] In Tunisia, it is higher at 35.5%, but low compared to the OECD average of 65%. When MENA women do work, they often occupy lower paying jobs.

They are also under-represented in high-level managerial positions in both private and public sectors, for example women hold only 15% of executive positions in Tunisia, compared to 43% in the US, although better than Korea at 11%. Women chair only 4% of boards in the MENA region[6].

The average share of MENA women holding seats in Parliament is almost half the OECD average at 16%, compared to 30%. However, there are some bright spots: Morocco has introduced a quota system to increase women’s representation to 38% in regional councils and to 20.5% in Parliament.

In Jordan, a gender legislative quota in parliament and municipal councils has substantially increased female representation, women now occupy 29% of seats across all councils.

Tunisia has achieved both horizontal and vertical parity on candidate lists for local elections, and in May 2018, women won 47% of seats in those elections.

But despite all of the impressive progress made, more is needed to allow women to succeed.

This applies to all countries: no country in the world has managed gender equality. The OECD’s report Measuring the Distance to the SDG Targets, finds that among the SDG targets, gender was where OECD countries have the furthest to go.[7]

So what can we do?


First, as our report last year emphasised, legal frameworks are needed to enshrine women’s status and rights into laws and constitutions and must be enforced through access to justice mechanisms; I know this will be one focus of today’s discussions.

Our report also recommended that governments review family laws and labour codes to align them with constitutional and international commitments, and to allow women to work in all sectors.

However, enshrining rights in law often isn’t enough. All around the world, we have to tackle the entrenched cultural views and attitudes about women, by both men and women. These attitudes are everywhere, whether in France or Morocco. We have to change the traditional mind-sets, the cultural barriers, the stereotypes that are preventing qualified and smart women from getting ahead. This would also help the issue of violence against women.

To change attitudes, we need a whole-of-society approach, sustained commitment and continuous use of policies over time.

This must start with the education system: teaching children with gender-neutral textbooks and tools, as well as teaching parents, teachers and employers to be mindful about negative stereotypes, can make a difference. Brazil, Belgium, France and Germany all have effective policies. Public campaigns and public investment in female rights and opportunities can also help raise awareness and promote acceptance.

Another powerful tool is the media. We need to consider what images of women are portrayed in soap operas, advertising and through social media platforms.

Countries such as the UK, Norway and Denmark are starting to take measures to ban sexism, or unhelpful stereotypes – such as showing women unable to park a car, or a man unable to change a child’s nappy – in advertising.

We need more female role models to show young women and girls – and men and boys – what success can look like.

We need to give girls the confidence to apply themselves and be ambitious.

The OECD is looking at various ways to encourage more female role models, and in Mexico, we launched an initiative with the Government called NinaSTEM Pueden, or “Girls can do STEM”, which focuses on identifying Mexican women that have been successful in the STEM fields, to come to schools and encourage young girls to take up STEM subjects, which is badly needed in Mexico.

Third, in addition to tackling stereotypes, there needs to be greater awareness of the burden of unpaid care, which mostly falls to women and can drastically affect their ability to participate in the labour force. OECD analysis shows that women in the OECD spend on average 1.5 hours per day on domestic work[8].

In my country, Mexico, it’s as much as 4.5 hours per day. In Tunisia, it is closer to 5.5 hours[9].

To redress the balance, as our report said last year, employers need to offer family friendly policies such as parental leave, flexible working hours or part-time work arrangements to allow women to work. There must also be increased transport security for women to and from the workplace. This will help both men and women juggle their formal work with their unpaid caring duties.

Female entrepreneurs – of which there are many across the region – must also be incentivised and legislation should establish businesses as gender neutral.

Fourth, gender mainstreaming will also be key to advancing gender equality, and is a key feature of the MENA Competitiveness Programme. I am pleased that this will also be discussed today.

In March, I launched a Toolkit on Mainstreaming Gender Equality, which helps governments, parliaments and judiciaries design gender-sensitive public policies and services. I know countries in the region are moving ahead with this, such as Morocco, which I discussed yesterday at President Macron of France’s Paris Peace Forum. It is also important to encourage young women and men to be more actively engaged in public life; OECD is supporting the Tunisian Ministry of Youth to do this.

Finally, we need better disaggregated data to be able to track progress, as well as spot the gaps. Without data, governments cannot effectively target their policies to where they are most needed.

The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index, I mentioned earlier is a great tool to help with this, and it is also an official source of measurement for SDG 5.1.1 looking at the legal frameworks that promote, enforce and monitor equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex.

The OECD helps countries to reinforce domestic capacity and skills to be able to collect the required data, and this is an important part of the WEEF’s purpose – to support and showcase gender-disaggregated data collection.

Cette réunion sera un grand pas en avant pour faire avancer tout ce travail et pour mieux comprendre les actions concrètes nécessaires pour surmonter les multiples obstacles auxquels les femmes sont confrontées.

Je suis fière d’être ici avec de nombreux défenseurs des droits économiques des femmes qui ont contribué à faire progresser les politiques et les mentalités de vos pays. Les bonnes pratiques et l’expérience que vous apportez serviront de base à une nouvelle publication de l’OCDE faisant suite au rapport de l’année dernière.

Alors, comptez sur nous ! L’OCDE continuera son engagement dans le cadre du Programme pour la compétitivité auprès des pays de la région MENA, avec vigueur et enthousiasme, et se tient prêt à vous aider à faire de l’égalité des sexes dans la vie publique et économique une réalité.

Je vous remercie.

[1] Initiative concertée pour le renforcement des acquis des Marocaines (ICRAM)

[2] 2005-16

[3] World Bank data from ILO modelled estimates, 2018

[4] In 2014, women comprised 59% of total students enrolled in computer Science in Saudi Arabia while UK and USA women enrolment were 16% and 14% respectively (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2014)

[5] Source: World Bank data from ILO Modelled estimates, 2018


[7] Measuring the distance to the SDG targets, An assessment of where OECD countries stand, 2017

[8] OECD 2017

[9] United Nations Statistics Division; 2006


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