Glass Doors: “Womenomics” in Jordan’s School Books

This article first ran in 7iber and appears here under their permission.

While women around the world are still concerned with removing the glass ceiling barriers that deter them from assuming managerial positions, females in Jordan and the Arab region are fighting hard to pursue economic futures, leaving them stuck behind glass doors.

Female workforce participation in Jordan is among the lowest in the region of the Middle East and North Africa, which in turn is among the lowest in the world. As a result, the region is missing a significant share of its qualified potential workforce that could strengthen its economic development and help maximize its growth premium. In Jordan, both the private sector and the government have intensified efforts to tackle barriers that prevent women from entering the workforce.

Despite these efforts, the “culture of work” in Jordan remains a persistent barrier to the participation of women in economics, or what what can be called “womenomics.” In this culture of work, a woman’s decision to enter the workforce is often made by the male members of her family.

They are likely to weigh the social consequences of her leaving the home, and its effect on family cohesion, when making their decision. We often find that younger men are becoming even more stringent in their roles as economic providers and authoritative household members, and thus are dictating to women when they can or cannot work. Promoting women’s participation in the workforce is not an easy task.

It requires a shift in the subjective beliefs about women and economic life. Building on the social theory of belief mediation, Alexander and Welzel, in their article “Empowering Women: The Role of Emancipative Beliefs,” published in the European Sociological Review (2010), suggest that in order to achieve the economic empowerment of women, society would need to view women’s economic empowerment as being both “desirable” and “legitimate.”

For Jordan, this means that female-friendly employment services, incentive systems and policies (i.e., objective conditions) must be coupled with a corresponding change in people’s mindsets (i.e., subjective beliefs) about women in the workforce. Yet, one must first ask the question: where are these mindsets shaped? While the family and society help shape values and attitudes toward women and the workforce early in a child’s life, these perceptions are reproduced and reinforced in the school system. Moreover, school curricula and textbooks are important tools for socializing cultural and ideological messages about gender roles and gender bias.

Figure 1: Rating and Frequency of Gender Concepts in Textbooks

These concepts are further emphasized through the informal and hidden curricula. Over a period of five months, at the Brookings Institution, I explored the role of the Jordanian school curriculum, specifically the direct and hidden gender biases in textbooks, as a tool for the socialization of cultural and ideological messages about women and economic life. The study evaluates the current desirability of women’s economic empowerment through a systematic analysis of forty Jordanian national curricula for grades 4 – 10 in four subjects: Social Studies, Vocational Studies, Civic Education and Geography. The mapping technique used was benchmarked by specific gender profiles divided into subprofiles. The revision included the textbooks, teacher guides and assessment methodologies in order to evaluate the cross-curricula messaging between and throughout grade levels.

What Did these Textbooks Tell Us?
The adjacent figure shows that a total of 802 gender concepts were mapped in the textbooks. Of these, 434 concepts were evaluated as negative (54.6 percent), most of which were mapped in the activity/productive profile. An additional 129 concepts (16.2 percent) were evaluated as neutral, most of which were mapped in the sociopolitical profile. Finally, 239 concepts (30.1 percent) were evaluated as positive; most of these were mapped in the reproductive profile (i.e., family planning subprofile).

Jordanian textbooks place a strong emphasis on female education. As illustrated in both images and content, girls and boys sit side by side at school, play together in the field and conduct their daily activities together. The message here is that it is desirable for women to have an education and to ensure gender equity. This is legitimized by the evidence of Jordan’s enrollment figures, as well as by the small gender gap in access to both primary and secondary schools.

Figure 2: Women’s work outside the house has a negative impact on family cohesion.

In spite of this, female students get subjected to three main messages with regards to womenomics. The first message is that there are no suitable vocational jobs for them and that there are a limited number of acceptable professional jobs; the second is that leaving the household to work would have a negative impact on their family cohesion (figure 2), thus limiting female mobility; and the third is that females are unable to manage finances or make decisions . By way of these hidden messages, the desirability and legitimacy of women leaving home to work come into question. The textbooks direct women toward the marriage market, whereas men are directed into the job market.

Another useful question to ask is, who provides this content? The figure below shows that in the mapped textbooks, there were 74 (38.54 percent) female authors, compared with 118 (61.46 percent) male authors. A count of the number of females in the technical committees supervising the authoring teams of each textbook showed an even greater gender gap, with 524 (97.6 percent) males and only 13 (2.4 percent) females (personal communication).

To better explain the role of the authors and technical-committee members in producing gender-sensitive textbooks, a general rating of gender-positive, neutral or negative was given to the textbook. Of the 38 reviewed textbooks, there were only three positive textbooks pertaining to the activity profile (specifically, dealing with reproductive family planning and health subprofiles) and three positive books pertaining to the sociopolitical profile (especially the women’s rights subprofile).

There were no books rated positive with regard to the productive subprofile of the activity profile, the access and benefits from resources profile, or the control profile. Figure 5 shows that there was no relationship between the neutrality of the textbook and either the number of female authors or the number of females on the technical committee. For example, two grade-six textbooks had more male authors but were among the positive textbooks mapped; therefore, including female authors did not necessarily yield gender-sensitive material.

One possible explanation for the gender of authors having little influence on the gender sensitivity of textbook materials is that the book must pass through four additional layers of review and additional rounds of comments by committee members, and other Ministry of Education staff, after the initial content has been developed. Throughout this time, content can be modified by any member of the technical committee or the Higher Education Council if they do not agree with the content provided.


In this way, with the absence of a gender specialist who can shed light on the appropriateness of the content and language used, the content in textbooks may not appear coherent or consistent because there is no systematic process for approving the written content.

In summary, drawing from Alexander and Welzel’s (2010) theory of belief-mediated social change, the gender-biased content in Jordanian textbooks directs both males and females toward employment futures that are socially desirable and culturally acceptable, but not necessarily to employment futures that make economic sense for individuals, families, communities and the nation. The policy, context and leadership landscape in Jordan then legitimizes this desirability by modeling the division of labor: Males move into leadership positions, while females are kept in socially acceptable jobs and behind glass doors. Meanwhile, a woman is prevented from taking any leadership post, thus keeping her under the glass ceiling. In these ways, a hidden curriculum integrated both in the formal curriculum at school and in the culture of the workplace makes female economic empowerment socially undesirable.


The gender leadership role modeling at the MoE not only makes political empowerment an illegitimate goal; it also illustrates that the very ministry responsible for implementing curricula that seeks to promote gender equity in the workforce does not genuinely view the idea as legitimate. In conclusion, Jordanian textbooks portray females in a way that reinforces the stereotypes that keep female confined in glass, where they can see economic futures that they cannot pursue.

For those who manage to shatter their glass doors, they are soon faced with a glass ceiling in institutions where they are not given the opportunity to lead. Failing to address gender bias in schools and in the economy means that the 50 percent of Jordan’s population that could fill existing jobs and excel in them is left behind. These working females are not only fuel for economic development but are also powerful voices in the family. These voices can shape generations to come into more compassionate beings who hold a more tolerant approach toward life.

* Mayyada Abu Jaber is the founder and CEO of World of Letters, a social enterprise dedicated to promoting quality education in the Arabic language by providing innovative program solutions and consultancy services to the education sector. She has over 15 years of experience in education strategy, workforce development and youth employment projects. In 2014 she was a resident fellow of the Echidna Global Scholars Program, hosted by the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at the Brookings Institution, where she conducted this research.


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