The full impacts of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continue to be felt both locally and worldwide, with Egypt reporting a total of 102,254 cases since the first case was reported in February.
Women have suffered a particular challenge over the course of the global pandemic, having to maintain a balance between their own work commitments and caring for children who have spent most of the 2019/2020 academic year studying from home.
The Egyptian government, under the guidance of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, has done much to provide solutions for working women during the pandemic, granting them the facilities to be able to work from home.
This has made it relatively easier for working women to both take care of their work commitments and of any children they may have studying at home.
“Students at school will attend classes in person for two or three days a week during the new school year, as part of measures to confront COVID-19,” Al-Sisi said, ”Therefore we must study the possibility of giving working women priority in obtaining leave during that period to take care of their children.”
The presidential proposal was not entirely a popular move, instead causing much controversy and leaving the community divided into three camps. The first camp welcomed the idea, saying that it is an important step in easing the situation for families. Supporters have called for further policies to promote both gender equality and women empowerment in the workplace, whilst also bridging gender gaps and allowing greater flexibility in the workplace.
Meanwhile, others flatly rejected this decision, claiming that if these policies are implemented, it will double the gender gap in the workforce. Their main reason for refusal is that the private sector will prefer to employ men, as they will be having less excuse than women for leave from the workplace.
The third camp brought together those who praise the decision, but have some concerns and suggestions for its implementation. They argue that facilities need to be put in place to ensure that private sector employers are unable to terminate employees.
Commenting on the presidential decision, Engee Soliman, Strategic Partnership and Advocacy Manager at Plan International Egypt, said that giving women priority for working from home is a move in the right direction, as it decreases the pressures working mother face.
However, the manner of implementing such a decision has to be carefully considered. On the one hand, this would allow the advantages of this privilege, whilst also ensuring that private sector companies do not put a stop to or limit the hiring of female employees.
“It is a nice initiative and its intentions are good, but we should guarantee that the private sector does not exploit this and use it against women,” Soliman said.
Nihad Abu Al-Qumsan, Director of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) praised the decision, stating that putting in place gender sensitivities for such decisions is a very important step.
However, businesses disagree with this, with some highlighting the potential economic pitfalls in implementing such a decision. A company chairperson, who agreed to comment on condition of anonymity, said the decision is far from beneficial for gender equality, and in fact increases the gender gap in the labour force.
“Business-wise, what benefits will I see if I hire a female that is going to work three days a week for EGP 100, when I can pay EGP 100 for the same task from a male who will work 5 days per week,” the source said.
They added that allowing women to work from home depends on the way in which the decision is implemented. With impacts likely to be seen on the number of working hours per week, most of the private sector will put a stop to hiring more women.
In response, Abu Al-Qumsan stated that the world is witnessing an exceptional situation, and the necessary considerations need to be put in place to try and provide as much as possible on working women.
She said that this decision will not negatively impact women’s representation in the labour force, but that in fact more needs to be done to encourage women into the work force in Egypt. Whilst 54% of university graduates in the country are female, women account for only 23% of the workforce, according to official figures.
Abu Al-Qumsan said that this 31% gap is due to a significant lack of any coordination between women’s needs and what the government provides to ensure their increased and continued participation in the workforce.
To some extent this reflects a general social trend that, once married with children, there are greater expectations on women to remain at home taking care of her family’s needs. The recent issues of working from home as children also study from home that have been brought up by the coronavirus pandemic, will also have an impact on women’s participation in the workforce.
This highlights just how important it is to have increased coordination on women’s needs, along with government incentives to ensure greater female participation in the labour force.
“What negatively impacts women’s participation in this aspect is that it ignores the reality of women’s roles in the home setting, and the pressures and lack of support they face” Abu Al-Qumsan said, “Unfortunately, and whether we like it or not, social expectations place a distinct difference between the domestic roles that men and women play in the home setting, with the reality of what actually occurs often quite different.”
She added that there is a general tendency for men to leave sole responsibility for domestic duties on the shoulders of women, leaving the womenfolk with a difficult choice to make. And it is the women who are forced to choose between leaving her children alone at home, or leaving their job, even if this means their salaries could potentially add to the household budget.
“The government understood this difference, so I think this coordination is truly needed and reflects how much the government understands the reality,” Abu Al-Qumsan notes.
Methods of implementing
“Although it is difficult to demand that the private sector give women holidays from the workplace, this could be implemented in a more practical way, with companies providing more flexibility for women to work from home,” Soliman said.
She explained that, through this practical way of implementing workplace-home flexibility, companies will be unable to limit or decrease the rate of hiring women. With this segment of the labour force working from home, it will ensure women remain just as productive as men, meaning companies will not be impacted financially.
Meanwhile, Abu Al-Qumsan suggested that while the government implements this decision, a study of the conditions in the private sector should also be undertaken. This would allow a general dialogue on what the private sector needs, and for support to be given through state funding.
“The state may pay 50% of the cost business owners face for this holiday, through any of its sovereign funds,” said Abu Al-Qumsan, adding, “This would act as compensation for business owners who implement this policy, and it will remain a great partnership between the private sector and the government to preserve the future for our children.”
She also said, “Our role now is to monitor both the abuses of this policy by employees, and also the abuses women may face at the hands of private sector employers, either through wage reductions, their being dismissed from work, or being transferred to positions for which they are over-qualified.”
Abu Al-Qumsan called on all women who have suffered any of these abuses to inform the National Council for Women (NCW) or any civil society that defends women’s rights.
“If we monitor this, measures will be taken and official complaints will be submitted to the relevant authorities to address the situation,” she assured.
Model for implementing this policy
Fine Hygienic Holding (FHH) CEO James Michael Lafferty welcomed President Al-Sisi’s decision, and added that his company has already implemented a similar policy for its female employees. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the company has allowed female employees flexible working conditions and the facility to work from home.
“We, at FHH, understand and support the needs of mothers, and provide an environment that fosters a woman being able to both have a child and have a career,” Lafferty said, “This includes offering world-class maternity leave, or even staying at home to help the kids with online learning, as many schools are closed due to the pandemic.”
Lafferty added that working mothers at FHH enjoy other benefits, including being able to shift from full-time to part-time work with the full support from FHH’s top management. Female employees can also access flexible work arrangements and reduced daily working hours, giving them extra time to care for and be with their children, he said.
Soliman said that Plan International is very sensitive to issues of gender, and promotes a friendly and supportive work environment for its female employees. The organisation offers working mothers flexible arrangements, including work from home.
What about productivity?
A company chairperson, who agreed to comment on condition of anonymity, said that he refused the government policy as it will negatively impact the company’s productivity. He also noted that allowing women greater work flexibility will make them less productive.
Lafferty, however, disagrees with this, and points to the policies put in place by FHH. He explained that his company provides women, especially working moms, the opportunity to shine and be productive.
He affirmed that the women-friendly strategy has had no impact on the company’s productivity, and added that FHH spares no effort in support all working women. He added that when the woman feels comfortable at work she can give more, so the profitability will subsequently increase.
Paternity leave is needed
In line with the discussions on encouraging greater female participation in the workforce, the issue of paternity leave and the right for men to have a family life also comes up.
“We need to promote and spread the idea and culture that it is not only women who are responsible for children care, but that the men also have a role in this,” both Soliman and Abu Al-Qumsan agreed.
“We at Plan International give male employees paternity leave, to encourage them to help their wives in all aspects of domestic affairs after the arrival of a new baby,” Soliman said, “We like the president’s initiative, but we also need to place it within a larger framework that supports the role of women more whilst also pushing forward the idea of the paternity leave.”
Lafferty said that FHH’s paternity leave policy, which has been effective since October 2019, aims to support work life balance regardless of gender. It is also designed to prevent discrimination against all employees with family responsibilities, and create a positive work experience.
It provides male employees with four weeks of paternity leave that includes three weeks of paid leave and one additional week unpaid. New fathers can access the paternity leave immediately following their child’s birth, so they can bond and help care for their new child, and assist the mother.
Male employees at both Plan International and FHH are eligible for flexible work arrangements, including being able to work from home, as per the institutions policy.
More women-friendly policies
After the announcement of President Al-Sisi’s decision, the women’s rights community increased their calls for better maternity leave, and giving female workers in Egypt official menstrual leave.
Most countries provide anywhere from four months of maternity leave for those mothers working in the public sector, to as much as 12 months in some particularly generous countries. Many private sector companies, however, provide less.
Abu Al-Qumsan said that this should be equalised, with demands made on governments to ensure that private sector companies also provide four months of maternity leave.
“Most governments legislate for six months, as this is when the child begins to eat solid food, while before this the child is still being breast-fed by its mother,” Soliman said, “We will be from the first institutions that will support the decision of increasing the maternity leave.”
Lafferty said, “We have taken the bold decision to not only “tweak” our maternity policy, but to overhaul it, so that FHH provides 16 weeks at full pay and an additional 16 weeks of unpaid maternity leave.”
Abu Al-Qumsan completely rejects the introduction of menstrual leave, highlighting that this policy will only backfire and instead will create a negative and unprecedented stereotype against women.
“Women at FHH are provided with an additional day of leave per month, easing discomfort arising from menstruation,” Lattery said, “We were one of the first companies in our region to announce this benefit.”
“We introduced this in 2011, to accommodate the biological nature of female employees, whereby they are entitled to a one-day paid leave per month without the need to submit a medical report,” he said.
When asked whether employees abuse this, he said “We believe that our female employees are mature enough, and can be trusted to wisely use this benefit, keeping in mind that we have the working from home option which they can use to complete any urgent tasks.”
Soliman also welcomed the menstrual leave stating that, Plan International provides a supportive working environment for women during their periods, and gives them the flexibility to work from home.
“We have to bear in mind it depends on how hard the period is, as some women really suffer so they must take a rest,” she said, adding that Plan International would be the first to adopt it if it is brought in.