Gender equality is a global priority across all industries. While there is still much work to do, many companies, institutions, and countries are sincerely undertaking efforts to close the gender gap. Bahrain is such a place, where women’s education is championed. Prisha Dandwani investigates the degree to which women have increased access, and why.
In a recent World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2022, Bahrain ranked 54 out of 146 countries in educational attainment, scoring higher than places such as Malaysia, Italy, Singapore and Australia.
Universities have an important responsibility to attain gender equality in higher education, not just within campus life, but also within their general communities. Women account for about a half of the world’s population, and without their success in both education and the workplace, economic prosperity is just not possible. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the UN once aptly said, “To educate girls is to reduce poverty”.
Gender gap issues are evident around the world, however, Bahrain is clearly a notable country in the Arab region to look at more closely when understanding what opportunities exist for women. According to an official study reported by the Media Line in 2021, 63 percent of postgraduate degrees in Bahrain are held by women. Multiple factors are thought to contribute to this phenomenon that sets the country apart.
Increased access to education and work for women is not a new development in Bahrain. The “Bahr” in its name is Arabic for “the sea” and, geographically, its location on the Persian Gulf has shaped its culture. Historically, while men spent long periods of time at sea fishing or pearl diving, women took more responsibility in society, managing general life and the home.
Professor Yusra Mouzughi, President of the Royal University for Women (RUW) in West Riffa, Bahrain, explains that the country has always led the way for women’s rights and education. “Bahraini people are tolerant by nature, and liberal”, she says, illustrating that since the 1950’s and 1960’s, women regularly travelled for further education or opportunities. This created a strong foundation for women today to feel comfortable exploring their interests and ambitions.
Mona Almoayyed, Managing Director of one of the oldest conglomerates in Bahrain, Y.K. Almoayyed & Sons, was voted ninth most powerful businesswoman in the Middle East by Forbes in 2020 and similarly speaks about her experience growing up as a young woman in Bahrain.
“I was fortunate – my father really supported us, treated us equally as our brothers, and gave me the best education, sending me to England in the 1970’s to study.” She adds that Bahraini families are generally open-minded. While, of course, there are some families that may not have the financial capacity to send all their children to university, providing an education to women in Bahrain is a tradition in itself.
An ecosystem of support
On top of this foundation lies the current championing of women in both a political and social context in Bahrain. It comes through from the very top, namely the “Supreme Council for Women” established in August 2002 and led by Princess Sabeeka Bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the King’s wife. The Council has been given explicit powers to support the progress of Bahraini women and the jurisdiction to contribute to issues that impact women and society. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, since taking the throne in 2002, has realised his vision of promoting women’s advancement in all spheres of life.
Women’s participation has grown in Bahrain’s parliamentary and municipal elections, as was clear in November 2022, with 48 percent of women casting ballots. Professor Mouzughi emphasises this as one of the key factors driving increased access for women, highlighting that “women are woven into the fabric of society” as a result of the Council’s efforts.
Almoayyed shares this perspective. “The royal family and the King is a great supporter of women”, she explains, demonstrating how royal support in Bahrain is pivotal in providing access for women.
Results of the Council’s work are transparent in the success stories of Bahraini women. The number of leadership positions women hold both in higher education, private companies and governmental organisations in Bahrain is another clear outcome of the support and work that has gone into closing the gender gap. According to statistics released by the Supreme Council for Women, 59 percent of females work in specialised jobs in the government sector. The Secretary General for Higher Education is Dr. Sheikh Rana bin Isa bin Duaij Al Khalifa. The President of the National University of Bahrain, Dr. Jawaher S. Al Mudhahka, is the second female president of the institution.
In addition, there are programs in the private sector that help women in education and the training of employees. Mrs. Almoayyed points out that the government encourages the private sector to send employees to university. She highlights a particular organisation called Tamkeen, established in 2006 in Bahrain, that contributes to the country’s economic growth by providing programs and support to private enterprises and individuals. Their programs and efforts have been particularly significant in assisting female entrepreneurs and small businesses – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to their website, they have supported 15,466 female-led enterprises till date.
Women in higher education
Professor Mouzughi is clear that the RUW was not created with the intent to separate men and women. She explains that the real reason is more “Women are more likely to take on leadership positions and develop more inner confidence at an all women’s college.” The environment of an all women’s college is geared at empowering them to be comfortable and clear using their voice, and it is especially useful for girls who have perhaps grown up in more conservative environments. Professor Mouzughi points out that there is even recognition of the power of an all women’s college in the West, and refers to an article released by Forbes in October 2021, entitled “Want your daughter to go to the C-Suite? Send her to a women’s college”.
Women at RUW also experience a very dynamic environment for learning. “We encourage our girls to explore their interests and we also facilitate exchange programs; currently we have a group of women who are going to Abu Dhabi to participate in the Willem C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot competition. The university has competed in the past, and is the only Arab university to be in the top 30”. Bahraini female students also have opportunities to travel abroad for exchange programs or as part of their course assignments and extracurriculars.
Expanding the student cohort
There is room for Bahrain to attract a more diverse cohort of women as a result of its reputation, especially for female students in Southeast Asia. Professor Mouzughi comments that RUW does have some students from India and the Philippines, and it is a goal of theirs to make Bahrain and RUW a viable study destination for international students. However, more time is needed, as the Bahraini higher education system is still relatively young. International recognition bodies require a minimum number of graduates and student cohorts, though RUW is in the process of acquiring an accreditation from AACSB, a business education non-profit organisation that accredits the best business schools in the world.
Looking forward, she explains that shining a light on successful graduates and collecting data for evidence is an important task. In utilising data to follow postgraduate trends and lives, the university will be in a better position to draw on its strengths and expand. Furthermore, she expresses this goal is shared by the Ministry in Bahrain as well, as the Higher Education Council, which is also currently seeking to bring in more international students.
The reality of postgraduate life
While a large number of women are being educated in Bahrain, there is still work to do. The richness of education for women does not necessarily translate into life after graduation. While there are major success stories, such as a RUW graduate representing Bahrain at the United Nations, certain data reflects another side of the story.
In a recent study geared at recognising the contribution made by the Bahraini healthcare sector, women made up a large number of workers in the healthcare industry, but were underrepresented in leadership positions. While women are given plenty of access to an education in healthcare, they only account for 40 percent of the general leadership positions, a surprising outcome given more than 60 percent of medical graduates are women.
Bahrain ranked 54 out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2022 for educational attainment but 131st for economic participation.
When speaking to Almoayyed about this issue, she tells QS Insights Magazine, “I think there is some sort of stigma and prejudice, it is going away slowly. They love education here, and for people who can’t afford it there is open university available. But when they graduate, and they go to the workplace, they find that companies prefer to employ men, because they worry if they employ a woman she will get married, get pregnant, be absent from work… though this stigma has decreased”.
“My advice to all women, whether they are in school or in college, is to go for their dreams or passions, and to not get disheartened if you are not treated equally. If you work hard it will be recognised. A lot of women have closed the gender gap”, she continues. She points out that many Bahraini women have reached CEO positions, highlighting Tamkeen’s Chief Executive as an example.
“Ignore the little things that get you down”. She expands by suggesting that it would be helpful for universities to implement courses that assist women before entering the real world, especially in preparation for jobs and interviews.
It is evident that there is scope for further investigation and improvement in higher education expansion in Bahrain, as well as in postgraduate life for women. It cannot be denied, however, that this bustling country in the Gulf sets an example for wholeheartedly working on closing the gender gap in economics and society.
This article was from the QS Insights Magazine, Issue 1. Read the full edition.