The participation of women in the labour force is rising in Bangladesh. The Labour Force Survey (LFS) 2016-17, published in January 2018, shows that the female labour force participation rate (LFPR) has increased to 36.3 per cent in 2017 compared with only 4.0 per cent in 1974. The male LFFR, on the other hand, is high at 80.5 per cent.
In a country like Bangladesh, the relationship between women's participation in the labour force and development is complex and reflects changes in economic activity, educational attainment, fertility rates, social norms, access to childcare and other supportive services, and many other factors. Further, the relationship between female labour force participation and these factors is complex.
Sometimes it is argued that the female LFPR follows a U shape, that is (i) for countries with a relatively low per capita income, female LFPR is very high; (ii) for countries with relatively high per capita income, it is also quite high; whereas (iii) for countries that belong to the middle-income category, female LFPR is relatively low.
In this context, the literature argues how structural factors determine the female LFPR leading to the U shaped curve at the macro level. There are a wide range of micro-level factors including individual characteristics (e.g. age, level of education, and experience), household income, and the expected market wage which play an important role in determining female LFPR. Further, there are issues like intra-household bargaining, women's self-selection and their occupational choices which together have a significant influence on female LFPR at the micro level.
Policy focus on these issues is critical for Bangladesh because female labour force participation is a strong driver of growth, and it indicates the country's potential to grow more rapidly. It is also important as women's labour force participation is a coping mechanism in response to economic shocks that quite often hit the poor and middle class households in the country.
However, standard LFPR gives only a partial picture of women's work. Perhaps more important in Bangladesh is the quality of women's employment. The LFS 2016-17 shows that, out of the total working female labour (15+) of 20 million, nearly 92 per cent work in the informal sector. In terms of employment status, more women than men work as own account workers or contributing family helpers, which adds to their labour market vulnerability. In 2016-17, nearly 68 per cent of working women were reported to be engaged as own account workers or contributing family helpers, which typically place women in a subordinate and more vulnerable position. Further, as is well documented, women typically earn less than men, even after controlling for differences in observable worker and job characteristics.
In formal employment, only about a fifth of the female labour force has tertiary level education while another 46 per cent have higher secondary or secondary education. On the other hand, among the female unemployed persons, more than 6.0 per cent have tertiary education and 28 per cent possess secondary or higher secondary education. Female unemployment rate is nearly 7.0 per cent which is more than double the male unemployment rate. In particular, unemployment rate of females with tertiary education is a staggering 21 per cent which is 8.0 per cent for men.
Given the complex nature of female labour force participation, it is important to highlight how socio-economic factors affect the decision and ability of women to engage in the labour market. These include, for example, educational attainment; social dimensions such as social norms influencing marriage, fertility, and women's role outside the household; access to credit and other inputs; household and spouse characteristics; and institutional settings such as laws, protection, and benefits. It is also crucial to understand not only whether women are working but also what the employment outcomes are for women who do enter the labour force.
Overall, the quality of employment and opportunities for better jobs are unequally distributed between women and men in the country's labour market. When women work, they tend to earn less (the well-known gender wage gap), work in less productive jobs; and are overrepresented in unpaid family work and other forms of vulnerable jobs. Often, engaging in vulnerable employment is unlikely to improve the empowerment of women; rather it reflects the subordinate position of women in the household and society.
Some people argue that there are not many women who are capable of working at the decision-making level in offices. This, however, may only be partly true. The number of educated women has increased over time, but the size of highly educated women is not yet as large as that of men. Recent statistics show that women's educational attainment at the secondary level is higher than men although it starts to decline afterwards.
Social factors play important roles in women's employment. Many women are forced to choose between motherhood and their career due to their reproductive role. Although young university female graduates enter the job market with high enthusiasm and lot of expectations, their hopes start to fade within a short time because of familial responsibilities expected of a woman in a male-dominant society. This high exodus of young females at an early stage reduces the supply of capable women in senior positions in the highly competitive job market. Moreover, women have to be twice as good as men to get there!
For facilitating women's greater transition to higher and decision-making positions, a level playing field needs to be created along with nurturing a firm conviction that women have equal capability to undertake all responsibilities that men can take. Needless to say, existing biases and prejudices work against women's advancement in society. Often it is wrongly assumed that women would not be able to bear the responsibility or take up new roles which act as great barriers to bringing out women's full potential, abilities and talents. It shows that larger recruitment of women in the labour market is not enough, they must also be provided with equal opportunities.
In our society, the culture of valuing women's ideas is nearly absent not only within households, but in workplaces too. Often women's ideas are undervalued; female's voices are not heard until a man says the same thing -- may be in a louder and stronger voice. This undermines the confidence of females in work; not the lack of ideas or the willingness to work.
A critical challenge that women face is to make the right balance between work and family needs. This calls for introducing flexible working arrangements wherever possible, such that women can continue to remain in the labour market. Gender issues are not exclusively women's issues; men also need mentoring on gender sensitivity so that they can learn what they need to do to enhance opportunities for women's participation in the labour force.
Education plays a critical role in determining the nature of employment taken up by women. Education raises the reservation wage and changes the preferences of women jobseekers. Women's education also needs to expand beyond the secondary level for their participation in the labour force to increase, especially if they are to work in better jobs. At higher levels of education, potential earnings act as a pull factor, helping women to overcome economic and social constraints.
In Bangladesh, women are outperforming men in schools, universities and many other activities. Then why the same will not happen at their workplaces too? No doubt this is a structural problem; but this can be overcome through right policies, a supportive environment and above all, creating a gender-balanced society where women and men work as equal partners.
Dr. Mustafa K. Mujeri is Executive Director, Institute for Inclusive Finance and Development (InM).
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