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March 24, 2008 

Why Do Highly Educated Arab American
Women Have Low Employment Rates?

Study finds culture rather than career drives educational achievement

Irvine, California — Women's education, long believed to be an equalizing force in reducing the gender inequality gap, may actually serve a different role in some communities, according to new University of California-Irvine research to be published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.

"In the Arab American community, women have relatively higher levels of education but lower employment rates than many other racial or ethnic groups in the United States," says Jen'nan Read, sociology associate professor at University of California-Irvine, and first author of the study.

Her findings suggest that cultural and familial traditions – rather than career aspirations – are a driving force behind Arab American women's motivation to obtain a college degree.

"For the most part, Arab Americans are very similar to other Americans." says Read. "They share many of the same morals, attitudes and values, and in doing so they largely assimilate – and want to assimilate – into American society."

An area in which they do not want to assimilate, however, is in the contemporary American family, which they perceive as broken and in crisis – a feeling shared by other ethnic and religious communities in the United States, says Read.

"Arab Americans place a strong emphasis on higher education for women," says Read. "However, they stress education not as a means toward achieving a high-powered career as is often the case with U.S. women, but more as a resource to ensure that women can properly teach their children while caring for their family and maintaining their religious and ethnic identity."

"Education gives Arab American women the tools to navigate American society, socialize the children, and maintain the home and community. Ultimately, this is not so different from Americans if you consider that the Arab American family today resembles the normative family form in the 1950s and 60s," says Read.

The low employment rates among Arab American women, she explains, occur by conscious choice. "These women go to school knowing they will return home to raise children and care for their family. They have no intention of remaining in the workforce full-time once they have a family, even if they have a law or medical degree, though they often plan to return after the children are grown, albeit with less marketable skills than those with uninterrupted careers," she says.

Her findings are based on in-depth interviews conducted with Muslim and Christian Arab American men and women in Houston, Texas. Sharon Oselin, University of California-Irvine sociology graduate student, co-authored the study. The authors also found that younger women are more accepting of women working outside the home – findings which could challenge traditional gender roles in the future.

The research is the result of a two-year study funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and was completed while Read was a Carnegie Scholar and a Scholar-in-Residence with the Borchard Foundation.

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For a copy of the article, contact Jackie Cooper.


The American Sociological Review is the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association.

About the University of California-Irvine
The University of California-Irvine is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Founded in 1965, UCI is among the fastest-growing University of California campuses, with more than 27,000 undergraduate and graduate students and nearly 2,000 faculty members. The third-largest employer in dynamic Orange County, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3.6 billion. For more UCI news, visit www.today.uci.edu.

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.