Women's participation in the labour force is rising in Bangladesh. The Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) 2015-16, published in March 2017, shows that female labour force participation rate has increased to 35.6 per cent in 2015-16 compared with only 4.0 per cent in 1974. Over the same period, male labour force participation rate, though already high, increased marginally: from 80.4 per cent in 1974 to 81.9 per cent in 2015-16.
This, no doubt, shows women's advancement. However, the disadvantaged position of the female labour force is evidenced from a number of indicators. Out of the total working female labour (15+) of 19.1 million in 2015-16, 17.2 million work in the informal sector (more than 95 per cent). According to the QLFS, largest share of female employment is in services and sales (30 per cent), followed by agricultural work (24 per cent), elementary occupations (14 per cent) and machine operations (14 per cent). Regarding 'high-status' occupations by main industry that the survey defined, female share of employment as administrative and commercial managers is 20 per cent in the industry sector and 11 per cent in the services sector.
Overall, only 13 per cent female share of employment are as chief executives, senior officials and legislators whereas female share of employment as administrative and commercial managers is less than 13 per cent. Nearly 38 per cent of employed women work as 'contributing family helper' compared with less than 5.0 per cent for men. Thus working women are mostly concentrated in the informal and low-paid jobs along with a gross under-representation in decision making positions.
It is maintained 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. However, it starts to decline afterwards.
In formal employment, only about one-third of the female labour force has tertiary level education while another 42 per cent have higher secondary or secondary education. On the other hand, among the female unemployed persons, 10 per cent have tertiary education and around 51 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 17 per cent which is 7.0 per cent for men.
Also, women are mostly engaged in low-paid jobs compared with men. According to QLFS 2015-16, although women earn about 92 per cent on average of what men earn, it varies across occupations. The low share of women's income compared with men on average is partly due to women's greater involvement in the informal sector.
Social factors also 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 women 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 female staff 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!
In addition, women lack opportunities to gain knowledge and understanding from successful women executives. The concept of a 'mentor' for advancing women executives is still a rare phenomenon. A male junior executive can easily share and discuss professional issues with a senior, but for female executives this is not an easy task.
For facilitating women's greater transition to higher and decision making positions, a level playing field needs to be created along with culturing 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 our 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.
We increasingly see that women are outperforming men in schools, universities and many other activities. Why then will the same not happen at their workplaces too? This is a structural problem; but definitely this can be overcome through right policies, a supportive environment and, above all, creating a gender-balanced society where women and men will work as equal partners.
The writer is Executive Director, Institute for Inclusive Finance and Development (InM).