Fighting the Gender Wage Gap: The Bahrain Experience

Mitchell Belfer - September 2018


Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s suggestion that a society be judged by how it treats its prisoners was reflective of the times. Now, in 2018, it is not the state of prisons that raise eyebrows, but rather social imbalances; especially levels of equality between men and women. Since women’s rights are human rights and because human rights have become an issue of international political life, making sense of the ever-evolving legal frameworks and implementation mechanisms to ensure women are not left behind in terms of rights, responsibilities and roles, remains fundamental.

The United Kingdom and the European Union are global influencers of promoting gender equality and protecting women’s rights internationally. But there remains much to do as inequalities persist. Nowhere is this clearer than the gender wage gap where equal work does not necessarily generate equal pay. It is difficult to lead by example when aspects of Europe’s own social tapestry remain unfinished. The World Economic Forum predicts that it will take around 170 years to eliminate the gender pay gap entirely. If the UK and EU want to speed up the process, they should also be open to learn from the experiences of others—of local actors that have developed the legal, economic and social means for closing their gender gaps and ending discriminatory practices against women.

The Kingdom of Bahrain is one such example. Being a small island state in the Arab Gulf, one of the most important economic and political zones in the world, Bahrain has never been able to relegate any segment of society to the sidelines. History forced it to incorporate all its people into the life of the state, or risk survival. Women have contributed to Bahrain’s national life since the earliest days of statehood. This is not only in historic terms; in modern Bahrain too, women are active and the country’s socio-economic experience in reducing the gender wage gap is worth exploring.

In 2016, the average hourly wage earned by women compared to men stood at 87.4% implying a 12.6% gender wage gap. While the ultimate goal, and trend, is to reduce this gap to zero, Bahrain’s women:men pay discrepancy is already far below most developing countries (for instance Russia’s average is 33%) and an assortment of developed countries including many in the West where the European Union gender wage gap average stands at 16.2%. In the UK, it is 16.8%.




Beyond the power of demand that stems from greater participation of women in Bahrain’s economy — Bahrain’s Economic Development Board (EDB) is projecting an annual increase of 5% of women joining Bahrain’s economy so that women represent some 45.5% of the workforce by 2020 — four main factors are contributing to improving women’s rights in the workplace in what may be described as a 3+1 formula—three policy enhancements and one institutional framework.

First, Bahrain’s income and wage policies pursued by the Civil Servants Bureau (CSB) in the public sector have driven down the gender pay gap since all civil servants receive equal pay for equal work irrespective of their gender. Public sector wage policies simply do not allow for vertical segregation (re: based on the position such as managerial position) or horizontal segregation (re: discrimination according to occupation). Man or woman, older or younger, Muslim, Christian, Jewish or any other religious denomination and the same grade status generates the same pay, full-stop.

Second, Bahrain’s education policy offers high quality, free and accessible secondary and post-secondary education that not only facilitates, but actively encourages, female enrolment and is widely recognised as a key mechanism driving women’s empowerment. As a result, education attainment by Bahraini women outpaces men. In 2016, the ratio of Bahraini women compared to Bahraini men that finished 12 years of education (re: earned a high school certificate), was 104.3%. In other words, for every hundred male Bahraini high school graduates there are 104 female Bahraini graduates. This figure rises to 113 females for every 100 males if isolating education attainment in public schools and skyrockets to 175 Bahraini women to every 100 Bahraini men in higher education (post-secondary).

Third, a string of social and legal policies have been implemented to encourage full equality between the genders based on the renewed Family Law (2017) that advanced a platform of civil rights to empower women in political, economic and social participation terms while reinforcing their freedom of choice and ensuring that all family-centred matters be treated according to civil law, based on principles of absolute equality between genders. This implies the separation of religion and state and consolidates the rule of law over family matters—a sphere traditionally dominated by religious institutions. This legal framework acts as an incentive for Bahraini women to enter the workforce and etch-out independent professional lives.

Finally, Bahrain has gone through important institutional developments which have been formed and work towards enhancing the role of women in Bahraini society. Two organs have played particularly important roles: the Supreme Council of Women and the Bahrain Business Women Society. These, together with smaller, civil society groups, adopted decision-maker lobbying techniques and work diligently at influencing public opinion by raising the equality issue in the public media and through joint events with European counterparts such as the 2017 conference by Bahrain’s Ahlia University and London’s Brunel University titled ‘Equal Opportunity in Business and Society,’ that anchor best practices, share approaches and create an institutional, national memory of social progress.

The lesson from Bahrain is that: the combination of robust policies to encourage labour equality, education for all and individual self-determination requires an institutional buffer-zone to guide change and ensure that laws are implemented and not stuck in a state of paralysis. This model can be replicated—in the developing and developed worlds when the political makes room for the social.

Dostoevsky’s prison quip is matched by his awareness that ‘taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.’ With gender-related issues front and centre in many international discourses, people are increasingly polarised between those that welcome and those that reject change. When it comes to women’s empowerment and eliminating the gender wage gap, there is really no room for ambiguity. Societies will be judged accordingly.

Professor Mitchell Belfer is currently President of the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (Rome, Italy), Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Terrorism and Security at the Metropolitan University Prague (Czech Republic) and Editor in Chief of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies.