30 Apr 2019

Institutional Discrimination in Iraq’s Oil and Gas Sector

In Iraq’s oil and gas industry, which accounts for more than 97% of the country’s exports, women make up less than 10% of the labor force. They occupy mostly low-level service positions. Until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, female students had no access to oil training institutes in the country where schools provide 32% of Iraq’s oil and gas labor force.  

Existing literature on oil-dependent states and the “resource curse” show that lack of female labor in Iraq’s petroleum industry is not something unique. But it is unique in that national institutions are used to reinforce the gender discrimination.
 Given the extent of Iraq’s oil and gas resources, limited female employment opportunities and even women’s low incentive to work in this sector are in line with empirical studies on oil-dependent economies, according to Ross (2012). However, Iraq’s strict institutional and discriminatory barriers hinder women’s employment opportunities in the petroleum industry.

Rebin Fatah
Rebin Fatah

is oil and gas expert in ICPAR. His research focus is on Iraq’s oil and gas sector, and he has published two books on the same industry. He holds BA from Salahadin University-Erbil.

The low female labor participation in the petroleum industry is actually a global issue. Even in a developed country like the U.S., women make up only 15% of workers in the petroleum industry including the service, manufacturing, and supply sectors.

 Key Facts in Both Public and Private Sectors

Iraq’s petroleum labor force is divided between the public and private sectors. More than 30 national companies and general directorates — in addition to dozens of international companies — control the country’s oil and gas industry. The national companies have more than 150,000 laborers while the international and private companies employ about 30,000.

In 2007, approximately 79,000 people were employed in Iraq’s oil and gas industry. The number had grown to 150,000 by 2018, in addition to the 30,000 employees of private and foreign oil companies sub-contracted by Iraq’s oil ministry or national companies. 
Even though oil production increased along with the number of employees in the national companies, it is hard to attribute the production increase to them. Basically, the effort and investments of international companies in Basra and Kurdistan were responsible for the increase. 
It seems that Iraq’s patronage politics, not business necessity, was responsible for most of the increase in the number of workers. Therefore, the country’s oil sector, similar to other public institutions, is overcrowded. In this patronage-political hiring, Iraqi women were again disadvantaged.
There is no reliable data to show whether international companies handled this gender discrimination better or worse.

Higher-Education Schools Institutionalize Gender Discrimination 

 Iraq has four major oil community colleges; Kirkuk Oil Training Institute (founded in 1951), Beji Oil Training Institute (founded in 1951), Baghdad Oil Training Institute (founded in 1971), and Basrah Oil Training Institute (founded in 1994). These community colleges have supplied 32% of skilled and educated labors to Iraq’s oil and gas industry. 
These community colleges admitted female students for the first time in 2006. However, female admission was limited to 10%. Recently, new directives have raised the limit to 15%. This means that for each school year, only 15% of admitted students could be women. The rest of the seats are reserved for men. 
In Iraq’s public universities and community colleges, admission is based on high school 12th year average grades, and admission is fairly competitive for everyone without discrimination. However, in oil training institutes, gender discrimination has prevented thousands of women from being admitted despite of their educational qualifications.
For instance, of the 6,586 students who graduated from the Basrah Oil Training Institute between 1994 and 2012, only 84 were women (1.28%). The percentage was 3.16% for the Beji Oil Training Institute. Thus it is understandable why women make up only 10% of Iraq’s oil and gas industry workforce. 
Many female students who were not admitted to oil training institutions had 12-degree averages higher than 90%, grades that would qualify them for admission to medical and engineering colleges in Iraq. That they would seek to apply to oil-related schools shows their preference for work in that industry.
It is true that Iraq’s oil and gas sector employs a very low portion of the country’s work force. That small portion makes this institutional discriminatory policy all the more egregious.

State Institutions Reinforce Gender Discrimination

 Iraqi officials usually offer social excuses for the discriminatory policy. Some of them have used Iraqi women’s lack of interest in attending the oil training institutes and colleges; however, statistical facts contradict those claims. In the 2014-15 school year, 1,047 female students applied to the Basrah Oil Training Institute, but only 50 of them were admitted due to the gender limit. Many of the women who could not be admitted had high-school 12-degree average grades higher than those of male students. 
Preventing women from getting into Oil Training Institutes is reflected Iraq’s oil labor force. Until 2015, 13% of female employees in Iraq’s oil and gas sector had a higher-education degree (college and community college institutes). Of the female laborers, 72% are skilled and hold college and graduate degrees. 
 There is no formal statistical information on the gender differences in private oil companies in Iraq. Iraq’s Central Statistical Organization (CSO) has collected some data on state employees’ social background, but has no data on employees of the private companies that work in the industry.
According to the CSO’s 2018 data, gender discrimination exists in all public sector institutions, but it is worst in the oil and gas industry. Of 1,921,559 national institutions’ employees, 532,939 are women (27.73%). Moreover, of 132,887 employees in Iraq’s oil ministry, only 13,734 are women (10.3%). These numbers show that gender discrimination in the oil and gas sector is worse than in other public-sector institutions.

Purely Male-Dominated Industry

 Men also monopolize all high-ranking bureaucratic positions. Of 52 general directors and deputy directors in the oil ministry, only one is a woman. However, 72% of female laborers in the industry have college and graduate degrees that would qualify them for leadership positions. Iraq’s formal institutions reinforce the gender gap, hiring women only for low-level service jobs and institutions rather than for executive and leadership positions.
Rampant discrimination also exists in capacity-building training courses provided for the oil labor force. For instance, in 2015, of 4,367 oil workers who were sent abroad for professional training, only 485 were women (11.10%). These figures show that in Iraq, national institutions also reinforce gender discrimination.

How to Address the Issue?

 Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education should immediately remove all the barriers that prevent Iraqi women from being admitted to oil-training institutions. Like male applicants, female students should be asked to meet only relevant educational requirements; their admission should be based on their high school-average grades rather than a random quota system.
The federal government and oil ministry should be pressured to stop preventing women from applying for high-position jobs in the ministry and its linked national oil and gas companies. They should be committed to the international convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (the Cedaw Convention), in addition to other international treaties aimed at removing discrimination of all kinds.
The oil ministry can create equal opportunity, without any gender discrimination, by placing its employees and laborers in all professional training courses and workshops required for job-promotion in and outside of Iraq.   
The oil ministry needs to pursue a female-priority hiring policy to ease the accumulated effects of discrimination. The ministry should start prioritizing the recruitment of women in all oil-related institutions and national companies.


Ross, Michael L. The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2012. 

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