Women's resources are wasted in Iran

Women's resources are wasted in Iran

Iran does not utilize the resources of women. Women are not promoted to managerial positions, many educated women are unemployed and few women are elected to parliament. Although there are few limitations to women leadership in the laws and religion, there are only a few women appointed to the high managerial positions in Iran. – This is an important hindrance to the development of Iran, says professor Shamsosadat Zahedi.


Shamsosadat Zahedi, professor of management, Iran

Zahedi is professor of management at the Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran. She does her research on women and management in Iran, and was in charge of a national project on leadership in public administration and political positions. The informants came from different ministries and organizations. They were all managers or were qualified for promotion to managerial positions. The women were asked about their education and qualifications. And she compared women and men. The conclusion is very clear: Only a few women reach managerial positions.

- There are many qualified women in this country, says Zahedi. If the selection criteria were fair, we would have had many female managers.

The authorities need women. During the Islamic revolution in 1979 women were very active. But they had only supportive functions, they were not leaders.

There are measurable improvements in women’s situation since 1979. And Iran has surpassed other countries with respect to women’s progress in some areas. Women’s life expectancy has increased to 70 years. Women’s literacy has increased to 79%. Attendance at elementary school is now at 94% for all girls. For young women age 14 to 17, school attendance has reached 65%. Women now comprise 38% of the work force in the public sector.

Zahedi tells that before the revolution, the Shah of Iran widely publicized the modernization of the country under his government. But also under this regime, few women held high-level managerial positions – and those who did were usually related to members of the royal family. Iranian women’s share in public sector management remained constant at around 2,8% from 1966 to 1996. Today, only a very optimistic estimate sets the share at around 5%.

The Constitution and religion

The Iranian governmental system is explicitly based on Islamic ideology. In the Quran’s teaching, men and women are created from the same spirit and complement each other. Regarding human nature, Islam recognizes no differences between men and women. – In every religion there are contradictory norms and rules, and it is always possible to discuss why this or that argument is emphasized. But there are no restrictions in Islam when it comes to women managers, says Zahedi.

The Iranian constitution contains articles and clauses concerning women’s rights in particular. It reads that appropriate opportunities must be created for the growth of women and to the support of their identities. Mothers, especially during pregnancy and while children are young, must be supported. Orphans must be protected. Special courts for the support of family life are to be established. Divorced women and elderly women who lack an extended family support network must be protected. And mothers’ guardianship of their children must be established and defended.

In addition one clause defends Iranian citizens’ participation in political, economic, social, and cultural activities without prejudice against women. Another article provides for equal legal protection of both men and women and states that both men and women benefit from the exercise of human, political, economic and cultural rights, with due compliance to Islamic regulations.

- The Iranian constitution states equality between men and women, and gives room to create work opportunities for women. But the government does not follow up. And when women try to climb themselves, they are stopped by the glass ceiling, says Zahedi, and refers to the invisible hindrances for women in work life.

- The Iranian constitution is good, if only the government would commit to it! There is a large gap between the intentions of the constitution and today’s reality for women.


It is difficult to get into an Iranian university. You have to pass a demanding entrance exam, and there are few available places and many applicants. The entrance exam is anonymous. Neither name nor gender is stated. In 1996 half of the students were women. In the last three years 60% of entering students are women. Zahedi tells that women have had access to university education for nearly 70 years. All these years the universities have been male-dominated. But a quota system for women has never been proposed by government or politicians. Now that the majority of new students are women, the proposal of a quota system for men is launched. Many feel that traditional values are threatened when the women surpass men, says Zahedi. The family institution shakes. But she also thinks that the increase in women students shows that an old taboo against women’s education is diminishing. And that women’s qualifications are now more recognized.


But if you look at the employment statistics – and how the country utilizes it’s young educated people – the numbers are disappointing. In 1996 only 8% of all Iranian women above the age of 10 were employed outside the home. Neither are the figures encouraging for women with higher education. In 1996 statistics show that only 38% of women with university degrees had work. The public sector is the main employer for women. 87% of working women are public employees. When you look at the top managerial level, only 5% are women. In private sector there are only few women. Zahedi thinks that it must be very discouraging for female students to observe the high number of unemployed educated women.

Zahedi’s research on women who are qualified for promotion to top managerial level, shows that they must wait for a long time. And they have to watch the men pass them. She tells that in Iran women managers must be twice as good and twice as hardworking, unless they are related to the elite families.

The men in Zahedi’s research project had positive attitudes to women managers, but when it came to promoting women, they showed their bias.

Women experts in mid-hierarchy are uncorrupt, says Zahedi. And Iran is not utilizing their experience and competence, which is a problem when the country emphasizes economic development.

Women in politics

- Women are outsiders in politics, tells Zahedi. – The very few women top politicians are usually related to male top politicians, in the same way that women who held positions before the Islamic revolution were related to the Shah family.

President Khatami did not appoint any women ministers when he appointed his last government in 2001. – He believed that appointing a woman minister is a great risk to take, and he was not ready for that. Of course there are some conservatives who have a negative view of women leaders and find women leadership in contradiction to tradition and religion, says Zahedi.

Iran compared to other countries

Zahedi has done a comparative study of Muslim countries. In other Muslim countries women have opportunities as leaders and politicians. – Are we so different than them? she asks. In Muslim Morocco 26% of management positions are held by women. In Turkey the number of women managers is 10%. In Iran the discouraging number is 3,5%. One UN-report ranks Iran 97th among 102 countries on percentage of women in managerial positions. Zahedi explains the low number with official doctrine, the recruitment and promotion policies of companies and governmental units, different expectations to women and men and traditional division of labor.

Also in other areas Iran scores poorly in UN statistics and indexes of women’s situation in different countries. On a scale were women’s status in society are measured in different ways, Iran ranked 87th among 102 countries in 1998. Sweden ranked first.

Development and women

Zahedi has many suggestions on how to improve statistics on women in managerial positions. She thinks it is important that Iran ratifies the Convention for Non-Discrimination against Women. Even with many reservations. She thinks that a quota system is necessary to get women into managerial positions. Evaluations of managers and employees have to be gender neutral. – We must also work for a change in attitudes to combining family obligations with paid work. And incorrect interpretation of religion must be contradicted: - it is not good that certain clerics make discriminatory remarks about women’s status in an Islamic country. The government has a duty to stop this incorrect interpretation of Islam. Zahedi also thinks Iran should follow the example of Norway, where the government aims to reach 10% women in upper managerial positions by 2005.

Zahedi thinks that Iranian women are frustrated with the present situation. The talents and creativity of half the population are not considered worthy of being exercised for the progress of Iran. Other countries realize that women managers can bring freshness and new energy to work life, but this is not so in Iran. Iranian women have proved their abilities in the universities. The have also proven their strong interest in participation fully in political life. Still, women face enormous barriers and discrimination in spite of legal guarantees in the Constitution.

Zahedi is disappointed with the authorities’ efforts, also with the reformist government of the last years. – All women have achieved, we have done ourselves. Maybe 10% of women’s progress can be subscribed to the government, the rest we have achieved ourselves, claims Zahedi. She knows that Iranian women are aware of their rights and show great insight into their status. They see that women have more rights and a higher status in other countries, and are pressing to bring society closer to the promised equality of the Constitution.