Oil, Religion and Women in the Workforce

By Amity Shlaes

Why do Middle Eastern countries have so few women in their workforces? Is religion to blame? Or, perhaps, is oil? Michael Ross of UCLA investigates in an interesting study.

His bottom line: "petroleum perpetuates patriarchy."

This is so for some obvious reasons: working for an oil company can yield strong wages, for instance, obviating the need for a spouse to work. Oil work also requires greater physical strength than, say, weaving textiles for exports. As a result, Ross posits, oil keeps women at home because of Dutch Disease, a name that refers to a currency phenomenon observed in the Netherlands following oil booms there. Heavy oil exports tend to drive up the currency of the country doing the exporting. That, in turn, worsens the terms of trade for exporters in other industries in which women might participate more equally.

Ross contrasts Algeria and Tunisia. Put simply: although Algeria is less religious than Tunisia, its women stay home more, because they lack good options for employment. Ross's chart correlating female suffrage with oil wealth is particularly compelling.

A thoughtful rebuttal to Ross, by Tofol al-Nasr of George Mason University, is available here.

(Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Bloomberg View and oversees the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2011 Bloomberg

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