Regulatory Changes Are Not Closing the Gender Gap

It could be argued that the Arab world is in need of more regulation as far as women’s rights are concerned. It needs modern laws in regards to discrimination, sexual harassment both on the streets and in the workplace, domestic violence, educational access, and all other areas where equitable rights need to be implemented. Laws and regulations have the potential to change behavior. Based on a rational choice perspective, when there are sanctions on what people can do and what they cannot do, behaviors would change in line with what is required. It would subsequently be expected that behaviors subject to state punishment would go down. When there are systems that criminalize discriminatory behaviors against women and that outlaw intimidating workplaces for women, company decision-makers will respond by doing their best to avoid penalties and punishment.

Yet there are two main shortcomings with an over-reliance on the regulatory arm of the state to regulate behavior. First is the issue of implementation. In some countries, such as in Lebanon, amid political strife and opaque environments, the state often has limited powers in terms of enforcing laws. In other parts of the Arab world such as in Yemen, parties rely on elders and communal leaders to sort out disputes and decide on any deviations from expected behaviors. The problem thus becomes not that of regulation but that of implementation. Coming up with newer rational laws is always healthy, but the real benefit of such laws is only realized when governments come up with reasonable workable enforcement mechanisms.

Another shortcoming ofan increased reliance on the power oflaws is that the beneficiaries from such laws, marginalized women in this case, are the ones who are less likely to make use of them. One example relates to sexual harassment laws in the workplace. A study by the Arab Trade Union exploring various Arab labor laws indicated that irrespective of the presence of laws or lack thereof, women tend not to report cases of harassment or violence in the workplace.13 There could be many reasons for such attitudes including fear of being blamed for what happens to them, or fear of retaliation. Irrespective of the reasons for lack of reporting, no laws would really protect women who are not willing to report wrongdoing. In those cases, women may just decide to continue working, often under the same boss, where they have to tolerate what happens to them till they find another work opportunity. In other cases, they may decide to leave their jobs, or exit the job market altogether.

In sum, regulatory changes are very much needed, yet the positive outcomes of such changes are slow and take many years to materialize. Without proper implementation and without a parallel change in attitudes and norms, regulations are not likely to be effective.

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