During Pakistan period, till up to the independence of Bangladesh women remained largely invisible outside their homes, being seen outdoors having been a taboo for them. Not to speak of professional life, even in normal jobs in offices they were not seen in any significant number. Even educated women belonging to middle and upper middle class families remained within the confines of their homes, doing household works of various types, avoiding the social stigma of doing any paid work. A smattering of rural women could be seen working in crop fields, brick kilns, construction sites and in homes of the well-to-do as housemaids. Jobs for educated women were reserved in certain fields like nursing and teaching in schools. For a long time labour force participation of women remained below 10 per cent in Pakistan.
Fast forward to early 2020, participation of women in labour force has become nothing but dramatic, compared to the past. They now account for 40 per cent of the total labour force. In 1999, the percentage of women in labour force was 24 from where it reached to 36 per cent in 2017, according to the labour force survey of BBS. Some factors have contributed to these dramatic progress of women's participation in the labour force. Firstly, the increasing number of women who went to schools, colleges and universities beginning from 1950s became eligible for various types of jobs. Secondly, they studied all kinds of subjects and not only the one traditionally earmarked for them. Thirdly, as their visibility increased in public, the social stigma of being seen outdoors gradually disappeared. Fourthly, as the number of educated women swelled, their demand for jobs grew in strength. Finally, with the growth of the economy, employment opportunity for women increased.
Encouraging as these developments were, the distressing aspect of increasing participation of women in labour force is their employment mostly at lower levels and with low paid jobs. Those with higher qualifications and coming from middle and upper-middle class were able to enter the high-end job market. But the privilege of being be posted at good places and quick promotions had been reserved for the few and those were not always based on merit or experience. On the other hand, incentives for women to get employed have not succeeded in confirming full and equal participation in the labour force.
In 2017 only 19.96 million (36 per cent) out of a total of 55 million of working age women (15-65) participated in the labour force. The comparative figure for Nepal was 80 per cent and Vietnam 77 per cent. The 2017 LFS show that 75.48 per cent of women were working in agriculture, handicrafts, petty trades and other elementary occupations. Even in the formal sectors in manufacturing factories like garments which employ a large number of female workers, most of them are engaged at low level with low wages. What is most distressing is that among the poor, illiterate and unskilled, more than one-third women are engaged in non-market activities mostly as unpaid household workers and child caregivers. Even now women are far behind men in quality and gainful employment. As in other developing countries, labour market for women in Bangladesh is reserved for low productivity and low wage jobs. Even educated and skilled women are under-represented in managerial, technical and professional jobs where only 2.8 per cent of women work as against 11.50 per cent males. The largest gender gap has been in managerial positions including CEO's, administrative heads and chief accountants. The number of male managers is 9.2 times higher than female managers, according to BBS survey. The gender gap figure is the same for planned and mechanical operation in factories. Even in garment factories women are employed mostly low paid jobs, very few of them occupying managerial posts. In the professional category like science and engineering and healthcare, the number of men is two times higher than women.
On the other hand, gender gap in employment has been trickling more into the low skilled and none-technical jobs. Share of women workers in agriculture, fisheries and forestry are very close to that of men. Participation gaps between occupations provide the evidence that about 90.85 per cent women are working at low skilled and non-technical occupations.
The gender gap in high-end employment can not be explained away only by lack of higher education, better skill and qualifications. Bias against women with better qualifications and skills is also evident in work places, particularly in corporate bodies because of the perceived idea about their physical weakness, preoccupation with house work, childcare and stoppage of work due to pregnancy. Women are considered as having more disadvantages and liabilities than men for which they are not given higher responsibilities. The so called `glass ceiling' is a male construct based on male prejudices against women.
Only in government offices where entry is through competitive examination, there is not much gender discrimination. But there too favourite posts and promotions are not always made on merit. The X-factor also works in government offices against women, perhaps less obtrusively.
After Covid-19 lockdown was declared, everyone was forced to go on leave and some became unemployed. Among those who lost jobs in small establishments, women were the first and constituted the majority in number. In bigger establishments only those who could work online from home could retain their jobs. After lockdown was lifted, there was retrenchment by employers to save money and cut costs. Women employers have been the first to be on the chopping bloc. If a new LFS is carried out now after the lifting of lockdown, it will be seen that gender discrimination has reduced the number of women in labour force participation. Moreover, it will be seen that women facing the axe are mostly from the poor and lower middle class. Covid-19 being a regressive socio-economic calamity has taken a higher toll of poor women in the employment market, because they do not have a lobbying in power. A few posts at the top held by women are more for publicity and demonstration about the political correctness of the employer. The bare truth is, as long as organisations are dominated by men, women will be at their mercy, holding positions at their 'pleasure' in the broadest sense. Post-covid society and economy will be a watershed event that will show whether catastrophes are gender-neutral or nurture gender bias as a matter of routine. It will be an interesting exercise to study the impact of Covid on women at work.