Female education and workforce trends in health-related disciplines in Jordan

Published online 22 December 2014

A recent report by the World Bank on gender assessment showed that half of Jordan’s educated females were unemployed, despite a growing awareness of the importance of women’s role in science.

Rana Dajani and Kamal Bani-Hani

© Image100

A legacy of the Arab Spring, which for better or worse, has largely reconfigured the Middle East’s political landscape, is an opening of new possibilities for women in the region. Many are realizing that structural forces retain the status quo, and that greater education is necessary to alter it. Some changes can take women, especially in the fields of medicine and science, a long way. But these changes must be long term in order to guarantee a generational transformation rather than temporary improvement.

Globally, the small proportion of women in academic sciences has been the issue of intense discussion. The Arab world has seen major advances in the status of women over the last decade; with new policies introduced to enshrine many rights. Some of these legal improvements have since set the stage for empowering women so that they can play an active role in political, economical, educational and social sectors. 

But laws sometimes don’t translate into practice. 

Despite clinching top positions in Forbes Middle East’s 2014 list of the 200 most powerful Arab women, female scientists are still at a disadvantage in the Arab world. 

While some laws may empower women, men still dominate academia, especially at the top. In the recent human resources report produced by the EU, one concern was the low number of female academics in higher education. Similarly the recent report by the World Bank on gender assessment showed that 50% of educated females in Jordan were unemployed – despite the fact that women dominate the education ranks until the tertiary stage. So how does this gap, between rate of education and rate of employment, occur? 

The case of Jordan: Women in Education

Males and females in Jordan have equal access to primary and secondary education. At university level, according to the Jordanian ministry of higher education and research, females comprise half the student body in many disciplines, including nearly two thirds in natural sciences, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, paramedical and veterinary medicine combined. 

In post graduate education, female enrollment is significantly higher; 57% of master degree candidates and 56% of PhDs are female.  

In our opinion, in the Arab culture, one reason females tend to achieve higher grades is  that while boys have more freedom to go out when they please, girls usually stay home and therefore are less distracted by outings and more focused on studying.  

Admissions to universities in Jordan are based solely on grades, so women usually have an advantage there. Also, many families are determined to secure an education for their daughters to guarantee their independence and shield them from being controlled by males.  

But the numbers show that female representation in higher education drops slightly, compared to schooling, because many Jordanian women get married early and stay at home. Even those who pursue higher studies are not compelled to work for a living after marriage, because of the Arab tradition for men to be the main breadwinners . However, in recent times, many women are being pressured to seek employment because of the economic crisis.

Despite women faring well in education, the statistics are dramatically at the level of academia, where faculty and/or senior positions are dominated by men in Jordan. Only 32% of assistant professors in health related fields, 26% of associate professors and a meager 19% of professors are women.4. 

Official figures show that 35% of grant holders from the National Research Fund – the largest funding organization in Jordan – are female although women constitute only 16.5% of faculty members, a reflection of the high achievement of women scientists compared to men. 


The most important effort lies in raising awareness concerning the existing role models through a national campaign at all levels, from schools to the professional sector.

It’s quite clear that although the record of female students in education is strong, the picture changes when it comes to top career positions. 

The reasons are myriad: institutions, the culture, or women themselves. 

For instance, to obtain a PhD, one must travel abroad. There is only one PhD program for pharmacy. In this respect, women are tied down by both finances and family obligations. There are also more subtle reasons, including a dearth of role models to inspire other women to break ranks when it comes to traveling to complete their studies or to aggressively pursue a specific career. 

Throughout history there have been female Arab scholars to look up to but little is known about them.  For example, Fatima Al-Majritiya, (d. 1008 or 1007 CE), was one of the great Muslim astronomers of medieval Andalus (Muslim Spain). There’s Zubayda bint Ja'far al-Mansur who pioneered a most ambitious project of digging wells and building service stations all along the pilgrimage route from Baghdad to Mecca. Sutayta was a mathematician and an expert witness in the courts. 

Although many point to religion as a reason for the degradation of the status of women in the Arab world, throughout the history of Islam, women have been given equal rights – and this is backed up by texts in the Quran. It was only with the demise of the Islamic civilization, at the end of the Ottoman empire followed by colonialism and dictatorships that women’s rights in the Arab world were diminished.  A lack of education and the withdrawal of freedoms resulted in social norms that led to injustice and subjugation of women, undermining their work and achievements, and which ultimately lead to fewer female professionals in the present day. 

There are cultural reasons too – for instance, even if a woman achieves an advanced career position, she is not considered part of the “club,” as academia is a male-dominated realm.  There are fewer opportunities for interaction with colleagues, mentoring and informal advice.  

But this dynamic mode of learning should be incorporated into the academic environment in universities and research institutions. Because female academics lack such an environment, it’s essential for them to widen their network to widely exchange ideas and experience, and progress their careers through better professional opportunities or research collaborations. Men would equally benefit from such an expansion of networking, if only for a diversity of perspective.


There are policies that could be put in place to ensure the inclusion of women in senior roles through quotas. Usually such measures are vital to enable women’s initial inclusion in higher positions but eventually quotas should be removed to allow for advancement of women on merit.

In our opinion, the most important effort lies in raising awareness concerning the existing role models through a national campaign at all levels, from schools to the professional sector.  

We also need to develop a mentoring network among female academics and professionals. Research suggests that by providing social networks and peer support, we can increase the number of women participating as professionals in the science and medical fields. This would help create a new generation of female scholars and promote multidisciplinary and multi-cultural research that combines all fields of science.  

Recently, one of us (Dajani) founded a female mentoring programme in Jordan that focuses on the contributions of women to science, partly to connect female scientists to a larger network of academics in an attempt to promote leadership, but also to raise awareness about career issues, such as tenure, promotion, and advancement while balancing family and work; and helping develop research collaborations. The program, Three Circles of Alemat (Arabic for female scientists), is funded by an NSF/PEER award, and is expected to cover Jordan, the Arab world and Arab female scientists in diaspora. 

All these observations and recommendations from Jordan could be used as guidelines for other Arab countries because we do share a history, and several cultural and religious traditions. But we must be aware that there are differences among Arab countries as well. 


  1. Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency. Human  Resource  Management  in  Public Higher Education in the Tempus Partner Countries A Tempus Study (2012)
  2. Country Gender Assessment: Economic Participation, Agency and Access to Justice in Jordan. World Bank (2013)
  3. Jordan Rising Medical Hub of the Middle East. Medical Tourism Magazine. (2009)
  4. Ministry of Higher Education Jordan Report 2013.
  5. Labour union of respective professions Report 2013.
  6. Salim Al-Hassani. Women's Contribution to Classical Islamic Civilization: Science, Medicine and Politics. Muslim Heritage.
  7. Dajani, R. World View: How women scientists fare in the Arab world. Nature. Nov 1;491:9 (2012)