The Marathon to Close the Gender Gap

By Dorothy Shea, Deputy Principal Officer

Palestinians should be applauded for largely eliminating the gender gap in education.

Secretary John Kerry said that finding a solution to gender inequality is a marathon and not a sprint. I’ve only recently arrived in Jerusalem but I’ve already been impressed by how boldly Palestinians are running this marathon. On October 11, 2014, we will celebrate the International Day of the Girl in recognition of girls’ rights to education and the unique challenges girls and women continue to face around the world, including women and girls in the Palestinian Territories. Empowering women throughout the world has been a long-term goal of Secretary Kerry as it was for former Secretary Clinton. Closing the gender gap will take time, but we must steadfastly move towards a more inclusive society if we want peace and prosperity.

Palestinians should be applauded for largely eliminating the gender gap in education. Unlike in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, Palestinian girls and young women enjoy equal access to education as their male counterparts. In 2012, girls accounted for half of all students enrolled at Palestinian schools, making up 50% of the primary school population and 54% of secondary school students. In fact, last year’s statistics show an even stronger female presence in higher education, where 58% of students were young women. Among graduates, too, women form a clear majority – around 60 % in 2012. The literacy rate is 94% for women, one of the highest rates in the Middle East.

However, Palestinians still have a gender gap in the workplace, and this is where greater attention is needed. In 2014, 72% of men were employed as opposed to just 19% of women, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Paradoxically in Palestinian society, employment opportunity among Palestinian women decreases as their level of education increases. Palestinian women with 13 years of schooling or more suffer from the highest rate of unemployment, at over 53 percent. As a result, many more women than men with higher-education degrees are forced to accept jobs that are far below their qualifications. Female graduates from Gaza to Jenin to Jericho file away their diplomas and go to work in hair salons or tailor shops. They conclude they have no chance of working in their professional field, but they can contribute to their household income as low-skilled workers.

I’ve been fortunate in my role at the American Consulate General to witness first-hand the enormous energy, creativity and confidence that girls and young women bring to our public events. Recently, we sent two amazing young Palestinian women to Boston to participate in a leadership conference as part of the Women-2-Women exchange, and our TechGirls program is emboldening young girls to pursue professional and academic careers in science and technology. Politically, the voice of Palestinian women is also incredibly significant and inspiring; some of the most articulate and compelling arguments regarding the Palestinian cause that I have heard come from women. Palestinians have done a commendable job in embarking on the marathon but as we acknowledge this important day we should also recognize that Palestinian women are ready for the next phase in achieving gender equality.

A whole host of data, from the World Bank and World Economic Forum to the OECD, indicates that when women are gainfully and fully employed, societies tend to function better, are more stable and prosperous. I am convinced that when Palestinian women are more fully integrated into business, journalism and politics all Palestinians will reap the benefits. I think that the Palestinian leadership understands the transformative power of female employment and is committed to ending discrimination in the workplace and ensuring broader rights for women. Now is the time to realize this noble goal – in the boardrooms, on the mastheads, at the summits.

Ultimately, Palestinians themselves must choose to invest in their society and better utilize the talents and education of women. Overcoming gender inequality will not come overnight, but we cannot stand still either and let time pass. As we celebrate the International Day of the Girl, let us consider how far we have come and what is left to be done for a more inclusive society.