DEAD SEA, JORDAN // Bringing female workers' pay closer in line with their male colleagues in the Middle East and North Africa is exercising the minds of delegates at the World Economic Forum as estimates put the pay gap at between 20 and 40 per cent.
Getting women into the workforce has long been a challenge for policymakers in a region where levels of female joblessness are generally twice the rate of males.
But as a small trickle of females enter the workforce they are facing a fresh barrier: pay inequality.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) cites the case of Amira, a Jordanian school teacher, who was refused when she asked her principal for a pay rise. A few months later she was fired, according to the ILO, who changed the name of Amira to protect her.
"The official reasons given for my dismissal were weak. I'm sure they wanted to punish me for asking for a fair wage for my work," the ILO quoted her as saying.
Women in Jordan are paid on average 41 per cent less than men in the private sector and about 28 per cent less in the public sector, the ILO said in a report released on Thursday.
In the UAE, female managers are paid about Dh8,000 less than males in the same position, a 2010 study by Zayed University found.
Freshly graduated females in Saudi Arabia on average earned between 6,000 (Dh5,876) to 7,000 Saudi riyals, about 20 per cent less than males, estimates Khalid AlKhudair, the founder and chief executive of Glowork, an online platform based in Riyadh that helps connect women to employment in Saudi Arabia.
Mr AlKhudair says one of the reasons for the pay divide was a lack of female willingness to enter wage negotiations.
"Women have been trying to prove themselves in the labour market and are more willing to work for lower pay than men and less likely than men to ask for pay increases," he said.
Cultural reasons are also cited.
"The problem of pay discrimination is a social problem where society does not see women's contribution to the labour market to be on the same level or importance as that of men," says the Jordanian National Commission for Women secretary general, Asma Khader.
Some countries are seeking to tackle the problem, with Mr Al Khudair saying that Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Labour is working on legislation to punish employers in the public and private sector that failed to offer equal pay to men and women.