WOMEN’S EMPLOYMENT IN BANGLADESH: CONUNDRUMS AMIDST PROGRESS
• • • • • • • • • • • Women’s work participation rates have doubled in Bangladesh since 1995 but they are still extremely low at 26 percent. The dramatic growth in women’s employment is led by the health and community service sector. Younger women’s employment has seen the largest increase. Higher education is an important predictor of both entry into the labor market and wages. Micro credit has had direct and indirect impact on employment. Compared to other countries, agriculture does not employ as many women in Bangladesh. This explains a large part of the low participation rates for especially poor women. Occupational sex segregation is a likely deterrent to moving across jobs for women. Only 10 percent employed women and 22 percent of employed men aged 20-55 receive any cash wages. Poor access to wage work more generally also explains why women choose to stay out of market work. Women earn about 60-65 percent of what men do in the agricultural labor market; 81.5 percent of this difference is unexplained and could be due to labor market discrimination. Some regional patterns appear counter-intuitive and need deeper investigation. Serious data and measurement issues have hampered the understanding of labor force participation rates in Bangladesh
4.1 Bangladesh in the South Asian Context: It is well known that women’s employment in South Asia is lower than in any other part of the world except perhaps the Middle East. Bangladesh is at the lower end of the South Asian spectrum and intuitively to those who know the country this seems inexplicable, given that key catalysts of female employment, viz. secondary school education and fertility rates, have had such impressive performance. Unlike other countries in South Asia, however, there has been a sharp growth – an increase of almost one and a half times - in women’s employment in Bangladesh in the last decade (1995-2003) coinciding with economic growth and better opportunities. But rates are still very low at 26 percent for women 15-59 years of age. The gender gap in employment too, while narrowing slightly, still remains very high as male labor force participation is close to universal. However, the prevalence of working for a cash wage is low for both men and women, with less than one fourth of all men and less than four percent of all women working for a cash wage83. Unlike other parts of South Asia urban-rural differences in employment rates in Bangladesh are very small and also unlike other countries, urban women tend to be employed more than their rural counterparts. This is due in large part to the lower importance of agriculture in women’s employment as we shall see in the rest of the chapter. 4.2 Research on Bangladesh’s labor market has until now not addressed the issue of female labor force participation rates. Early studies had tried to address determinants of labor force participation and drivers of household labor supply84 and some anthropological work has addressed cultural factors that affected women’s work85. More recent literature is replete with analysis of the impact of employment on women’s status86 but few have asked the question – why is women’s labor force
Calculations based on those working (age 20-55) who received a cash wage in the last week (Bangladesh Labor Force Survey 2002-03) 84 Khandekar, 1985; 1987 85 Cain, et al , 1979 86 See for instance, Kibria, 1995; Amin et al, 1998; Salway et al, 2005 55
participation in Bangladesh so low? This is beginning to change as even newer work is addressing these questions using special surveys in the context of the “new employment opportunities” in Bangladesh87. 4.3 Measurement challenge of women’s work: Measuring women’s work is a challenge in most countries that have not paid special attention to this. Men and women have distinct employment trajectories; women are more likely to be in part-time employment, to...