London — Women in the Middle East and North Africa are better educated than ever before, but legal and social barriers are hampering their access to jobs and careers, costing the region billions of dollars a year, experts said on Wednesday.
Just under a quarter of women in the region are in employment - one of the lowest rates in the world, said the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The region also has the lowest proportion of women entrepreneurs, according to an OECD report which examines barriers to their employment in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.
Nicola Ehlermann, an OECD expert on the region, said girls' education was encouraged but professional aspirations were not.
"If these countries were to use the full potential of the women they invest in educating they could gain massively," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The OECD estimates gender-based discrimination in laws and social norms costs the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region $575 billion a year.
Following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, a number of countries incorporated gender equality into their new or amended constitutions.
But strict rules around family relations mean women do not share the same rights as men to make decisions, pursue professions, travel, marry, divorce, inherit or access wealth.
In Egypt, Jordan and Libya, women must still get permission from their husbands or fathers to work, the report said.
Unfair inheritance laws also put women at a disadvantage if they want to start a business or ask for a loan.
Ehlermann said labour laws that restrict women's working hours and the sectors they can work in, and social expectations that they shoulder the housework and childcare, impact women's choice of jobs and employers' decisions to hire them.
"We need the men on board. Responsibility for income and managing the house should be shared," said Ehlermann, the report's author.
Fears of sexual harassment in the workplace or on public transport is another factor that deters women from seeking work.
The report urged MENA countries to update their labour and family laws, improve women's access to finance and develop policies to help them fulfill their potential.
Gabriela Ramos, OECD chief of staff, called for countries to embed gender equality in all their laws - and enforce them.
"Gender equality is not only good for women, it's good for businesses, it's good for sound economies and it's good for happier societies," she said.
- Editing by Katy Migiro