The ripple effect: when women enter the workforce, health and economic benefits are magnified

Infant and mortality rates drop, health improves and prosperity reigns when women are encouraged to work

Saudi Arabia’s plan to hire women as prosecutors points to an evolution that promises to remove barriers to women’s participation in government, the workplace and public life in the Middle East and North Africa.

Attorney general Sheikh Saud Al Mojeb’s announcement last month came on the heels of better-publicised decisions to allow Saudi women to drive and attend soccer matches. Similar changes are underway across much of the Mena region. Amal Al Qubaisi has stood as president of the Federal National Council for more than two years and nine women currently hold ministerial posts in the UAE government. Women in the UAE hold senior management positions or run investments worth $15 billion and the government is pressing for women to make up 20 per cent of board seats at publicly traded companies. Egypt’s parliament voted in December to give women inheritance rights and Tunisia is considering a proposal to strengthen women’s rights in this area.

Although the battle is far from over, the momentum reflects a significant effort to provide women with opportunities that would have been unlikely a few years ago. Forward-looking leaders realise that acceptance of women into the workforce and public life is a vital component of economic growth. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that advancing women's equality could add $600 billion annually to overall GDP in the Mena region. In addition to economic gains from the direct contribution of women, inclusion might encourage international investment to help create high-paying tech sector jobs.

Our research suggests one more reason for opening doors to women: the increased participation of women in the workforce as a result of economic growth correlates to lower infant and maternal mortality rates and a healthier population, regardless of gender. One conclusion is that the most effective long-term solution to many health challenges in developing countries is not outside intervention but a sustained focus on economic growth and increasing workplace opportunities for women.


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The link between economic growth, expanded opportunities for women and health are equally clear. We know from previous studies that as income rises and the demand for labour increases, more women take jobs outside the home and invest in their education to command higher salaries. As household income rises, families shift their focus from quantity of children to the quality of care those children receive. In other words, families are smaller and can afford better medical care.

Unfortunately, not all of the news from our study is heartening. Our most troubling finding is that the disparities in infant and maternal mortality rates among Mena nations have been widening for more than a decade. The most likely cause is different rates of economic progress. In the UAE, where the average income is more than $44,000, the mortality rate for children under the age of five is seven in 1,000. In Djibouti, which has an average income of $1,812 per person, the death rate is 13 times higher.

However, an expanding economy isn’t enough by itself. Prosperity and improved health both depend on Mena nations investing in their people. Some of the investment must come in the form of financial support for education at all levels but leaders must also continue to invest their political capital by championing women's rights to equal treatment in the classroom, the workplace and the public square.

Assessing the many variables that contribute to health improvements is a complex undertaking. The most consistent and influential factor we observed is income. When income rises, more women and children survive, creating a ripple effect that elevates the health of a nation. And when women contribute directly to prosperity by entering the workforce, the health and economic benefits are magnified. Realising the full potential of an inclusive workplace will require smart leadership and thoughtful policies. We see both taking shape across much of the region.

Ken Sagynbekov is a health economist at the Milken Institute in California, where his research focuses on applied microeconomic analysis of health and crime. The two-day Milken Institute Mena Summit begins tomorrow