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Why are women in the Middle East still fighting for pay parity, despite legislation?

Experts say organizations must put pay audits into place and create inclusive environments or risk falling behind.

Why are women in the Middle East still fighting for pay parity, despite legislation?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

In 2017, three women accused Google of pay inequality, highlighting a wage gap of $17,000 between male and female employees. The women employees claimed that Google forces them to follow less rewarding career paths, resulting in lesser salaries and incentives compared to their male counterparts.

Cut to 2022: Google had to pay $118 million to settle the pay discrimination lawsuit. And it’s not just Google. Earlier this year, even LinkedIn had to pay $1.8 million to resolve a pay discrimination case. For reportedly offering a lowball offer for a potential comedy special, Netflix was sued by American comedian Mo’Nique.

According to a UN report, women still earn 23% less than men worldwide. Despite decades of international legislation granting women the right to work and attend school, women are still fighting for their right to equal pay.

There’s pay disparity and unequal representation at all levels in many organizations. The gap widens even more every time a woman gets promoted. 

The reality in Middle East countries, according to experts, is that women are less active in the workplace, which explains the overall lower gap, even while highly educated women are in well-paid employment. “Women in the region are less represented in the jobs that are highly paid. For example, most women in the Middle East are in HR, which has traditionally been a lower-paying function than STEM roles,” says Sebastian Fuchs, career consulting leader at Mercer. 


The pay gap for women is already bad enough; disturbingly, chances are that until 2270 their salary will not be equal to that of male coworkers. 

“Employers have traditionally made every effort to prevent workers’ wages from wandering off into the office bushes,” says Mona Ahmed, who works at a fintech company in Egypt. As a result, pay-related silence has become the norm in workplaces that often, she adds, benefit employers. 

“Though I cannot determine whether I have experienced wage discrimination, I have encountered institutional obstacles, heard sarcastic remarks, and observed how men are given substantial tasks while women scholars get more administrative work,” says Ahmed. 

Many working moms in the region pointed out that when women take time out to have children, they struggle to get back into the workforce. 

Recruiter bias means the company feels the woman is less committed and ambitious than before having children. As hard as it may sound, women pay the penalty for maternity or getting married. “They are discounted from the talent pool altogether, or even worse, offered menial pay compared to men for the same role,” says Emma Burdett, Founder at WILD. “In a rush to start their careers again, women often accept less pay for their skill sets.”

Women at work also feel tokenism is at play, which impacts their psychological well-being. “There needs to be an understanding that gender equality doesn’t mean adding more women to the workplace. This causes women to feel they are added because balance is needed, rather than being employed for their skills,” Burdett adds.

Highlighting other reasons behind pay disparity, Burdett says, “ Women are frequently the subject of scrutiny and are given extra work, often requested to participate in committee work and represent the company in public. Overall, this results in more work but not work that counts toward goals, bonuses, or promotions. Again, a drawback in terms of pay.”


Many countries in the region have already made laws to prevent further disparity and made amendments to existing laws to entrench pay parity as a legal requirement for public and private entities. Experts say that while most of the countries in the region have already legislated laws to ensure pay parity, very few women know about it. 

“Signs of progression in this aspect can be seen in some of the Arab States in the Middle East who were signatories to the MOU of the joint ILO, UN Women and OECD Equal Pay International Coalition in 2017,” says Charlotte Ibañez, Director – El Channun Management Consulting & EC Legal Consultancy.

According to UAE’s labor law, women shall receive the same compensation as men for performing work of equal value. Similarly, Ibañez says, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia now prohibits wage discrimination against women who perform work the same as any of their male counterparts.  

Qatar and Bahrain prohibit discrimination in wages for men and women having the same roles and conditions. The Jordan labor law also considers inequality in the payment of wages based on gender a form of discrimination and penalizes any employer with a penalty between $700-1,400.

Significant changes have also been seen over the years to promote pay equality in Oman, Egypt, and Iraq. Despite the laws in place, women in the region suffer pay disparity. This is because, Ibañez says, In the end, narrowing the wage gap will depend on how the employers in the private sector implement on the ground those legislations that support equality for all employees.” 


Experts say fairness needs to be implemented at all levels of the business. That means designing systems for pay decisions and creating fair and equal bonus structures for men and women.

“Leaders and HR practitioners in every organization who have the first-hand influence and decision-making abilities to make things happen on the ground must not simply wave their magic wands but look at the core of the problem.” 

“They should look beyond compensation and start making employment equality part of every fiber of their organization. It should be seen in every program of activities, such as employment policies and business standards until it becomes part of the company’s culture,” Ibañez adds.

It involves fostering inclusive workplaces and equity across the range of perks and, most crucially, pay.

“Organizations can implement pay audits to drive gender balance. In some countries, it is illegal to have pay gaps. Gender pay gaps cause a PR nightmare and become costly for an organization. Negative press and a damaging reputation mean that customers are less keen to work with the organization, and the talent pool is also affected. After all, candidates are attracted to equity and fairness when looking for a new role,” says Burdett.

“It is perhaps more important than ever for organizations to look internally at what they can do to level the playing field regarding gender parity. Conducting a pay gap analysis for each function to compare what women on average earn and what men on average earn are imperative,” Burdett says while adding that a company should be transparent about the stats when it comes to paying.

It’s necessary to put pay audits into place and create inclusive environments, according to experts, or businesses risk falling behind. It won’t take long before the pay gap shrinks, and equity becomes ingrained in the company’s culture.

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