by Allison J. Anderson
Jordan’s low female labor force participation rate has long confounded policymakers, researchers, and activists. Despite achieving progress on several determinants of female labor force participation over the last decade, including increasing levels of female educational attainment, higher ages of marriage, and lower rates of fertility, less than 15 percent of women are actively engaged in the formal economy, as compared to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regional average of 25 percent. Of the women that are actively engaged in the economy, more than a quarter of women are unemployed. There are several barriers to women’s economic participation in Jordan, including social norms, legal restrictions, available job opportunities, and a lack of safe, affordable, and adequate care infrastructure and transportation.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the already low economic participation for women and high unemployment rates in Jordan. During the pandemic, women were more likely to lose their jobs than men or leave the workforce due to additional unpaid care responsibilities. The loss of jobs comes with severe social impacts for women, as economic inequalities worsened by the pandemic have placed the most vulnerable groups of women at an even higher risk of violence. Despite the difficult situation, there is hope that an expansion of the digital economy and remote work opportunities that developed from or were strengthened during the pandemic may help to limit some of the barriers to women’s economic participation. Even before the pandemic began, the development community placed faith in the power of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to increase economic opportunity for women, as well as underserved communities, by connecting them to jobs and markets, overcoming restrictions to economic participation related to social norms, mobility, or time poverty.
Thanks to funding from the American Center of Research, I was able to conduct qualitative fieldwork in August and September 2021 to better understand how the COVID-19 pandemic affected women’s economic participation through ICT-enabled work, with a particular focus on Jordanian women utilizing ICTs to support home-based businesses and micro-entrepreneurship, and work in the gig economy. This research builds on my earlier fieldwork (2018–2019) investigating whether and how ICTs help overcome constraints to female labor force participation in Jordan.
My earlier research found that Jordan is currently prioritizing women’s entrepreneurship initiatives for economic development and women’s empowerment. Government and donor initiatives have focused on supporting home-based businesses and micro-enterprises that utilize ICTs for selling goods and services online (including informal online commerce and e-commerce). Other initiatives have focused on additional forms of ICT-enabled work, such as connecting women to remote-based job opportunities (e.g., call centers). Finally, some entrepreneurship initiatives connected women to market opportunities in the gig economy through online platforms.
I learned that many Jordanian women, given numerous constraints to their participation outside of the home, are interested in pursuing ICT-enabled work to generate income while working from home and that these new forms of economic participation are blurring the differences between formal and informal labor. My research also revealed that opportunities in ICT-enabled work could benefit families in intangible ways by increasing support for women’s economic participation and normalizing women’s engagement in the market. However, my research also found that differences in class, geography, and education play a substantial role in a women’s economic success with ICT-enabled work.
During my ACOR fellowship, I conducted ethnographic research as a volunteer at the local nonprofit JoWomenomics and was involved in the day-to-day activities and research of an organization devoted to increasing the role of women in the economy in Jordan. I observed firsthand the activities around women’s economic participation and was grateful for an opportunity to engage with the local research community. In addition to ethnographic work, I conducted twelve interviews with heads of gig economy platforms, online commerce experts, home-based business advisors, and funders of international development organizations focused on supporting women’s entrepreneurship. These semi-structured interviews added significant insights into the state of women’s ICT-enabled work during the pandemic and its current recovery.
My research revealed that women’s ICT-enabled home-based and micro-enterprises struggled throughout the pandemic, with a significant decrease in demand and revenue in informal online commerce. As female freelancers often enter the digital economy without any guarantee of future work, online financial opportunities were unstable and scarce in the midst of COVID-19. In addition to economic difficulties during the pandemic, women could not deliver goods and services due to the lockdowns. However, micro-, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) also have an essential role in pandemic recovery. Informants shared several ways to support women’s ICT-enabled home-based and micro-enterprises. They expressed a need to move enterprises from informal online commerce fully into e-commerce by connecting businesses to export markets and providing training on how to conduct global e-commerce (e.g., Amazon). There is also a need to support women to formalize and strengthen their businesses by helping them integrate their products and services into high-potential value chains.
My research also found that while the gig economy can provide market opportunities for women, there were clear winners and losers during the pandemic. Like other businesses in retail, hospitality, and the services sector, several platforms in those sectors were unable to operate during the pandemic, limiting income-generating activities for women. Even more, the environmental challenges of remote work were higher for female employees due to conflicting roles — employee, daughter, wife, mother, housewife, etc. — presented by at-home work. However, informants shared that online platforms that helped connect women, and others, to remote work opportunities, such as technology and programming, graphics and design, business and consulting, etc., were able to grow. As the pandemic drags on, the advancement of remote work platforms has been paralleled by schools becoming more adept at operating under health restrictions, easing the burden of childcare on women.
Finally, my fieldwork found that although the pandemic exacerbated already low levels of women’s economic participation, it also accelerated the shift towards ICT-enabled work and the digital economy. Several informants shared how local businesses were digitalizing quickly at the start of the pandemic, finding ways to adapt their business and employment practices. One study found that 82% of Jordanian firms would or might adopt more remote-work practices. As government and other stakeholders increasingly recognize the need to transition to the digital economy, a key opportunity is presented for investment in women’s technological training, literacy, and participation. If inclusion is prioritized by providing women with tools of digital upskilling, there is potential to decrease economic, cultural, and educational barriers to female labor force participation, simultaneously responding to the global, digital shift in work.
Allison J. Anderson researches, teaches, and consults on gender, economic development, digital development, socioeconomics, and the Middle East. In 2020, Allison earned a PhD focused on women’s economic participation and entrepreneurship based on fieldwork as a Fulbright Research Fellow in Jordan. Previously, Allison was an associate program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she focused on strategic planning and engagement in the Office of the President for Global Health. Prior to this, Allison worked as a strategy consultant in Deloitte’s Government and Public Services practice. Early in her career, she served two years in the U.S. Peace Corps in rural Jordan. Anderson holds a PhD in international studies from the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies, an MA in international relations and international economics from the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and a BA in political science and Arabic and Islamic studies from the University of Michigan.