Working Mothers: A Balancing Act

According to the World Bank, women make up approximately 24 percent of the Egyptian labor force. Many of these women face the challenge of balancing their careers with extensive parenting and household responsibilities.

“Women’s work and family roles are interrelated,” said Ghada Barsoum (MA ’99), assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration. “With the increasing access to higher education among women in Egypt, more and more women are ready and willing to join the workforce. Data has repeatedly shown that marriage and childbearing remain key turning points in the lives of working women, with many unable to resume their employment after childbearing. Combining work and family hinges on the level of support these women can receive.”    

Family Support for Working Mothers

Given the challenges of balancing work and family life, Egyptian working mothers have utilized a wide variety of strategies for balancing their respective duties in the workplace and at home.

“In Egypt, while it might sometimes differ by social class, families tend to live in proximity to each other, so a lot of working parents use other family members to help take care of the children while they’re at work,” said Helen Rizzo, associate professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology. “As more and more women have entered the labor force, whether they’ve done it because they want careers or to help out with household expenses, families have always been there to help them with childcare. That kind of social support is more present in Egypt than in the United States, for example.”

Despite this strong presence of societal and familial support, Rizzo noted that there is still much progress to be made. “There is still a lot of pressure on working mothers to also manage the household: to keep track of the children’s homework, after-school activities and housework. Oftentimes, men, even when their wives work too, don’t feel they have to do this,” she said. “In Egypt, it is becoming much more acceptable for women to work, but what has been harder to change is getting men to realize that they need to do more of the household childcare as well.”  

Nonetheless, as Rizzo noted, changing gender roles have gradually allowed for Egyptian fathers to take a more active and involved role in parenting.

Childcare and Public Policy 

In addition to intra-familial dynamics, public policy, such as providing affordable childcare, plays a large role in the ability of women to be working mothers.

“According to some accounts, Egypt has 12,500 daycare facilities,” explained Barsoum. “This number is low in a country with this population size. The majority of these facilities are also in Cairo, with other urban centers lagging behind. As a result, more women rely on informal provision of childcare and extended family support.”

Beyond public policy, both private and public organizations are a significant component of women's ability to balance work and familial responsibilities. “Workplace policies are central,” noted Barsoum. “A key example is that women working in the public sector, with its more family-friendly working conditions, are able to come back to work after childbearing. The private sector, however, is the key sector of employment among young people. This opens the discussion for the need for policies that can support women in this sector, perhaps by subsidizing social security pay or other forms of support and by addressing the gap in child support.”