Political Science, NU-Q
Malak Monir

Examining the Gender Gap

Where are the educated Qatari Women in the Workforce?

  • Faculty Advisor

    Jocelyn Sage Mitchell

Published On

May 2017

Originally Published

NURJ 2016-17


Qatari women are more likely to pursue higher education than men, but they continue to be significantly underrepresented in the economic sector. Data shows this issue exists, but little research explores the reasons behind it. Several findings from the recently conducted Social Engagement Survey point to patriarchal attitudes accepted within Qatari society that lead to a belief that men and women must fulfill specific roles in society. Seven out of ten respondents of both genders agreed that there was social pressure on women to focus on family instead of work. Similarly six out of ten respondents, again of both genders, agreed that men had more right to a job than women. Thus most Qatari men and women felt that, all else being equal, a Qatari man was more likely to be hired to an open position in a company than a Qatari woman. The Qatari woman’s first priority is her family; the Qatari man’s is his career. This cultural climate has resulted in the country’s most educated citizens being outside of the workforce. Falling oil prices mean that the government can no longer provide for everything and that Qatari youth, as remarked by the Emir (the Qatari monarch) in a session of the Advisory Council. He further stated that Qatari youths should seize the initiative and branch into different career paths, which will require women.[4] It seems clear that educated Qatari women are an underused resource in developing Qatar’s future.

4. Khatri, S. and Kovessy, P. (2015, November 3). Qatar Emir: Government can no longer ‘provide for everything’. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from Doha News: http://dohanews.co/qatar-emir-government-can-no-longer-provide-for-everything/


Before delving too deeply into the main topic, it would be prudent to give context about aspects of Qatari society. It should be noted that, while there has been some improvement in Qatari women’s employment rates over the years, that growth has been sluggish at best. According to the latest data from the Ministry of Development, Planning, and Statistics (MDPS) from 2012, only about 35 percent of Qatari women are active in the labor force, compared to 68 percent of Qatari men. This statistic is still an improvement over 2004, when only about 29 percent of Qatari women worked, but there has been stagnation in the previous years, with the rates remaining between 34-36 percent between 2008 and 2011.5 Although the proportions of Qatari women to men are about equal in the general population, Qatari women represent only one-third of Qatari employees in governmental organizations and less than half of the 0.8 percent of the private sector that is constituted of Qatari nationals.[16] Yet women outnumber men two-to-one in institutions of higher education in Qatar.[5] This data did not specify attendance by nationality; however, according to Qatar University’s fact book, the university had more than three times as many Qatari female students than Qatari male students in the 2013-2014 academic year, suggesting that this trend of women outnumbering men in higher education holds true for Qatari women as well.[13]

16. Supreme Council for Family Affairs. (2013). Woman and Man In the State of Qatar: A Statistical Profile 2012. Doha. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from Ministry of Development, Planning, and Statistics: http://www.qix.gov.qa/portal/page/portal/QIXPOC/Documents/QIX%20Knowledge%20Base/Publication/Population%20Statistics/Women%20and%20Men%20statistical%20profile/Source_QSA/Women_Men_Statistical_Profile_QSA_Bu_A_2012_0.pdf

5. Ministry of Development, Planning, and Statistics. (2014). Qatar - Social Statistics: 2003-2012. Doha. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from Ministry of Development, Planning, and Statistics:http://www.qix.gov.qa/portal/page/portal/QIXPOC/Documents/QIX%20Knowledge%20Base/Publication/General%20Statistics/Qatar%20Social%20Statistics/Source_QSA/Qatar_Social_Statistics_MDPS_AE_2003-2012.pdf

13. Qatar University. (2015). Fact Book 2013-2014. Doha: Office of Institutional Research.

On a broader level, Qatar’s economy being heavily based on the country’s natural resources—namely its oil and gas reserves—has largely made it possible for families to thrive without a need for women to work. The government provides a generous welfare system that guarantees free health care and education for its citizens, and every Qatari with proof of a steady income qualifies for land and mortgage benefits.[1] Citizens are also legally afforded preferential hiring in the public sector and in the private sector through the process of Qatarization.[7] Additionally, government employees, defined as employees in government agencies or government-owned companies (which include 84 percent of Qatari citizens in the labor force receive generally higher wages for unskilled work, as well as better retirement benefits, good job security, and unemployment security.[1, 5] Ross also notes that oil-based economies make it more difficult for women to enter into the workforce since oil booms tend to diminish jobs in export-oriented companies and mostly create jobs in the service industry. As such, if women cannot find a place in the service sector, they can very easily be pushed out of the labor force.[14] By making it both more difficult for women to find opportunities to work and by diminishing the need for a second income, oil wealth can discourage women from seeking employment.[14]

1. Berrebi, C., Martorell, F., and Tanner, J. (2009). Qatar's Labor Markets at a Crucial Crossroad. The Middle East Journal , 63 (3), 421-442.

7. Mitchell, Jocelyn Sage. 2013. “Beyond Allocation: The Politics of Legitimacy in Qatar.” PhD diss., Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

5. Ministry of Development, Planning, and Statistics. (2014). Qatar - Social Statistics: 2003-2012. Doha. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from Ministry of Development, Planning, and Statistics:http://www.qix.gov.qa/portal/page/portal/QIXPOC/Documents/QIX%20Knowledge%20Base/Publication/General%20Statistics/Qatar%20Social%20Statistics/Source_QSA/Qatar_Social_Statistics_MDPS_AE_2003-2012.pdf

14. Ross, M. (2012). The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations. Princeton University Press.

Data Sources

Much of this paper’s analysis will be based on findings from the Social Engagement survey, which was written by a research team of faculty and undergraduate students at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) and conducted by Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI). It was funded by a grant from the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) as part of their Undergraduate Research Experience Program. SESRI is an academic research institute that was established by Qatar University in association with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. The survey was administered in Arabic only and interviews were conducted exclusively by female interviewers over the phone. The telephone interviewing was computer-aided so that chosen numbers were called automatically, without the interviewer needing to dial or know the number being called. In the case of no answer, the same number could be recalled a certain number of times before being counted as a non-response. Survey answers were inputted via keystroke to a computer station programmed with a range of valid responses in an attempt to minimize possibility of interviewer error. The survey was only given to Qatari nationals over the age of 18, both male and female. Respondents were selected randomly from a database provided by a major telecom company. The interviews were conducted between December 25, 2014 and January 15, 2015. Because the survey was conducted closely after Qatar National Day on December 18, it might have had an effect on respondents’ answers.

The response rate was 34.4 percent of the sampled phone numbers, which resulted in a total sample size of 649 respondents, 302 females and 347 males. The sample was weighted to account for this imbalance, as well as other demographics. The margin of error for the results is +/- 4 percent, which means that for any reported result, we are 95 percent confident that the true answer might be at most 4 percent higher or lower than that reported number. This paper will also examine published material about how petrol and culture affect women’s roles in society and their opportunities to enter the workforce.[3, 14] The paper will also include qualitative data in the form of interviews with five female Qatari citizens, conducted between late November and early December 2015.

3. Inglehart, R., and Norris, P. (2003). Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World. Cambridge University Press.

14. Ross, M. (2012). The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations. Princeton University Press.


There are three main survey items that can help give a clearer picture of the possible cultural reasons behind the observed gender gap. One item was a question about whether the respondent agreed or disagreed with the statement that men have more right to a job than women, where 58 percent of respondents, with no significant difference when broken down by gender or by age, expressed agreement. Another question was to agree or disagree that there is social pressure for women to focus on family instead of work, a statement with which 69 percent of respondents, with no significant difference by gender, agreed. Taken together, these two findings point towards an accepted fact within Qatari society: whatever else she may do, a Qatari woman’s main role is to care for her family. This does not necessarily mean that Qatari women do not have a place in the workforce, but it does suggest that societal expectations would have a woman’s familial obligations supersede her professional duties. These same expectations do not hold true for men.

This response ties into another question, which gave respondents a hypothetical scenario wherein equally qualified Qatari male and female candidates both apply for an open position at a major company in Qatar. They were then asked which candidate they believed would likely be hired. With no significant gender differences for any of the results, 54 percent believed that the man would likely be hired, 30 percent thought that the decision would be made fairly, while 15 percent thought that the woman would likely be hired. Qatar does not have laws mandating non-discrimination when hiring women.[18] This provides further support for the idea that Qatari women have a different role in society than men, especially in light of the strong societal belief that men have more right to a job than women. Men, being the main source of a family’s income, are automatically assumed to need the job more than a woman, for whom finding work is considered optional. When considering that both men and women agree that there is social pressure for women to focus on family instead of work, a clear picture begins to emerge. These findings imply that pursuing a career is optional for Qatari women and a requirement for Qatari men.

18. World Economic Forum. (2016). Global Gender Gap Report 2016. Retrieved November 7, 2016, from World Economic Forum: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2016/economies/#economy=QAT

The question of whether these gender roles are the result of Qatar’s oil wealth or its culture is still debated. Ross’ research suggests that this dearth of working women, common among several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, is due in part to the oil-based economy stagnating opportunities for women. By restricting the fields in which women in non-oil-rich countries can be in the workforce, it also makes it possible for men to support the household without needing women to contribute from their own income.[14] However, it is also important to keep in mind cultural considerations. Inglehart and Norris argued that the issue has its roots in the culture of Muslim societies, which tend to hold on to traditional values strongly from generation to generation. Thus despite changes in circumstances, concepts such as a woman’s role in society is that of a homemaker tend to survive over time.[3] The two considerations are not mutually exclusive. Culture is shaped by the forces that surround it, including the economy. Traditional cultural and societal expectations in Qatar have remained unchallenged due to oil wealth being able to sustain a one-income family. This is already coming under pressure in Qatar, especially in a time when three-quarters of Qatari families are in debt with loans exceeding 250,000 Qatari Riyals.12 Furthermore, the cost of living has risen in Qatar due in part to rising housing and education costs.17 The survey data seems to indicate that culture would be the dominant factor here. Even in this less lucrative economic climate, there is still pressure on women to focus on family, and men are still seen as the rightful breadwinners.

14. Ross, M. (2012). The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations. Princeton University Press.

3. Inglehart, R., and Norris, P. (2003). Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World. Cambridge University Press.

This is further confirmed through interviews with five Qatari women, including a mother and her two daughters (each interviewed separately). All five women are married, though not all are employed. “Our society and our religion expect that the man work and support the household. We [women] work because we want to,” said one retired Qatari woman, Mrs. A, formerly the headmistress of a local school.[8] This sentiment was reiterated by all but one of the other interviewees as well. She agreed emphatically with the statement that men have more right to a job than women, stating that it is part of men’s role in society to provide for the family, whereas for women work is more of a way of affording luxuries (jewelry, brand-name clothes, travel). She added that there is an increased trend though, particularly in middle-income families, for women to help their husbands with the finances by splitting 50-50 on household income to improve the family’s financial situation. She stipulated that this is a choice however, and not something that women are obligated or expected to have to do.

8. Mrs. A, Interview with author. Doha, Qatar, November 20, 2015.

Her eldest daughter Mrs. H, who currently works as a dentist, largely agreed with her mother’s perspective, though she also noted that she personally believed that men simply make better employees than women do.[9] She explained that women have more social commitments to attend to than men, and because they are also expected to care for their children (staying home if the child is sick, attending school functions, etc), they simply have less time to stay in the office and work. She also said that, in her experience, men work better under pressure than women do, are less competitive as coworkers, and are generally better at communicating. This is why she personally prefers male applicants when she needs to hire new employees. On that note, Mrs. H also agreed with the statement that men have more right to a job than women, but clarified that this was not to say that women do not have the right to work if they so choose. “If you’re talking about a family, the man’s job is to provide,” she said. “It’s an option for a woman.” She also said that while she personally had not been pressured not to work— in fact, her mother had always worked—she could see how other women might have that issue. Her father also encouraged her to delay marriage until she had finished her getting her degrees and had it written into her marriage contract that her husband could not prevent her from working. She said that some families might object to women working in mixed-gender offices, which would limit their chances of working. She also said that for sheikhas (women who are part of the ruling Al-Thani family) there is more pressure than usual, since there is the perception that they do not have to work.

9. Mrs. H, Interview with author. Doha, Qatar, November 29, 2015.

Her sister Mrs. M, who worked for eight years but is currently unemployed, disagreed.[10] She felt that while there is pressure on women not to work, it is more internalized than it is something that stems from society. “I think the pressure comes from the woman herself,” she said. “Deep inside, we know it (working) is affecting the family negatively.” Since leaving her job, she said that she has become “totally different” as a wife and mother. When she was working, she had very little time to spend with her children, would come home stressed, talk with with her husband mostly about her work, and had no time for a social life. She objected to the idea that women have the same requirement to work as men but added that the option should always be open for women who want it. “It’s a shame for women not to be educated, it’s a shame for women not to have the opportunity to work, but it is not a shame for a woman to stay at home and be a housewife.” Though Mrs. M is currently looking for work because her family needs it financially, she said that she would rather stay home and care for her children. “That is her role in life, to be a woman. Not to be a man,” she said. “It is not her role to carry the family financially.” While she had said that the pressure on women was more of an internal issue, she did have an interesting insight into hiring practices. She felt that if an equally qualified man and woman both applied for the same position in a company, it would certainly go to the man. She gave a simple reason for that: in seven out of any ten job interviews she has gone for, she said, she was asked whether she had children and whether she planned to have any more children. The questions, which she noted would never be asked of a man applying for any position, have a clear motivation behind them: to gauge the amount of time she would be able to devote to the job.

10. Mrs. M, Interview with author. Doha, Qatar, December 2, 2015.

One sheikha, Sheikha S, had similar experiences.[15] She agreed with the idea that the pressure comes more from the societal responsibilities expected of Qatari women, even if there is no explicit discouragement for women to work. She said that in the Arab world, a woman’s priority is her home and her children, and that whether she works or not, she is expected to care for the household. She added that in Islam, men are meant to be the providers. Sheikha S did not work after finishing her post-high school education but started after her children were grown enough that she had more free time at her disposal. It can be difficult, she said, to balance work with social and parental responsibilities. She explained that she could not let work interfere with her ability to take care of her family. “If I had to choose one, I would choose my household,” she said.

15. Sheikha S, Interview with author. Doha, Qatar, December 1, 2015.

Finally, Mrs. R, who currently works as a guidance counselor at a local school, said that perceptions about women in the workforce were changing.[11] She felt that the attitude that men have more right to a job than women is beginning to become outdated in the face of a rising cost of living, a sentiment that seems to support Ross’ argument that as oil wealth wanes, women’s employment opportunities improve.[14] “That is an old way of thinking [...] The times changed,” Mrs. R said. “Life isn’t as simple as it was before.” She has observed more young men expressing an interest in marrying women who work because they will need help with finances. With costs such as private school tuition becoming increasingly expensive, women now need to work to improve the family’s economic standing, she said. She herself only started working after marriage and acknowledged that it is difficult to balance work with other responsibilities since it leaves little time for a social life or to spend time with children. Even so, she still felt it was important for women to work in order to better provide for the family.

11. Mrs. R, Interview with author. Doha, Qatar, December 1, 2015.

14. Ross, M. (2012). The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations. Princeton University Press.

Each of these interviews provides some insight into the relationship between Qatari society and working Qatari women. A common theme throughout all five interviews was a reluctance to say that there is pressure on women to focus on family instead of work, before detailing implicit pressures from the expectation that women be the primary caregivers for children, especially when attempting to balance work with family and social obligations. Similarly, the topic of religion reinforced the idea that men have more right to a job than women, often coupled with the notion of tradition. This ties back to Inglehart and Norris’ argument about traditional Muslim societies holding strongly to established gender roles, including that of woman as homemaker.[3] At the same time however, the five did note that they had perceived a change in attitude towards women working, with some stressing the role of financial troubles as a key motivator for some women to seek employment. Again, this harkens back to Ross’ points about oil wealth restricting opportunities for women to work since there does seem to be some shift in the perception of women working that coincides with a drop in oil prices changing the country’s economic landscape.[14] However, all but one interviewee still maintained that it is not a necessity for women to work. It is still the man’s job to provide, but if his wife wants to contribute to the family income, that is her choice to make. Culture perseveres.

3. Inglehart, R., and Norris, P. (2003). Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World. Cambridge University Press.

14. Ross, M. (2012). The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations. Princeton University Press.


It seems that the dearth of Qatari women in the workforce is largely a matter of culture, reinforced by an economic climate that up to now has made it possible for families to live comfortably on the man’s income alone while women are expected to care for their families. Work is an available option and is likely to be one that more and more women opt to take if the current situation of falling oil prices and rising costs of living continue, but it is not considered to be their main role in society. It is something to be done in addition to taking care of the household, which is a responsibility that falls squarely on women’s shoulders. Even if women begin to enter the workforce in greater numbers out of economic necessity, which has been the case historically even in the Gulf, they would still be expected to place their careers second to the needs of their families.[2] Cultural attitudes can change however, and there are fruitful avenues for future research on how society responds and develops as economic conditions change and more Qatari daughters look up towards their working mothers.

2. Foley, S. (2010). The Arab Gulf States: Beyond Oil and Islam. Lynne Rienner Publishers.


Malak Monir