Published as part of “The Gendered Economy: Between the Constant and the Changing” which was held on August 25, 2016 at Coffee Republic in Riffa.
At the end of 2015, the official unemployment rate in Bahrain was 3.4%[i].
On the face of it, it sounds pretty great. You would not be at fault for thinking, in that case, that 96.6% of the working age population is actively employed. However, if we were to take a closer look, we would see quite a different picture, especially for female Bahraini nationals.
When calculating the above rate, unemployed persons are defined as only those who are claiming the unemployment benefit at time of measurement. If we instead looked at the total female labour force participation in Bahrain (the sum of females employed or looking for employment, divided by the total female working age population), we see that it is only 40%[ii]. When you exclude non-nationals and focus only on Bahraini women, that number goes down further, to approximately 30%. That means that 70% of Bahraini women who could potentially be working are not.
The reasons for this are numerous, spanning from personal preferences to social norms to gender roles and economic opportunities. For instance, the traditional family structure is still most common, with the man as breadwinner of the family, supported by his wife in the home. During weddings, the groom is typically congratulated with the phrase “منك المال ومنها العيال” – i.e. May you provide the finances, and she the children.
Perceptions regarding the hiring of women can also be heavily skewed. In conversations with various colleagues and friends, I have heard the argument far too many times that employers may be reluctant to hire Bahraini young women due to the possibility of them “getting married soon, having a baby, taking maternity leave and being an overall cost to the company.” Such a short-sighted approach can only result in lost opportunities and wasted talent. For example, in June 2014, 85% of the number of unemployed Bahrainis were women.[iii]
Many women also choose early retirement, particularly in the public sector. Again, the traditional gender roles play their part in shaping expectations, with early pensions allowed after 15 years of eligible work experience, compared to 20 years for men[iv]. Women are not expected to focus on their careers, but rather devote their own lives for their progeny. A woman is the candle to someone else’s flame.
Regardless of the reasons, Bahraini women are clearly an underutilised resource here. Having them more involved, socially and economically, can only be beneficial to the country in the long run. We need to systematically elevate their status as self-sufficient, productive individuals who are capable of making change in the country. Because as they rise, we all rise.
Muizz Al-Aradi currently works as a corporate banker, although typically prefers life outside of the office. He is a board member of the CFA Society Bahrain and a Global Shaper at the Manama Hub. You can find him and some of his various musings at @muizz101.