PAKISTAN’S consistency in being ranked the second last country in the Global Gender Gap Index owes to one undeniable factor: we have the world’s second worst economic participation and opportunities for women. At a mere 22pc in 2015, we have the lowest female labour force participation rate in South Asia.
At one-third the rate for men, women’s low participation rates are attributed to their higher reproductive burden, mobility restrictions and lower educational achievement, among other factors. Yet, the vast majority of women in the workforce (some 75pc) have no formal education. Only 32pc women have education levels of intermediate and higher. Thus, aside from addressing other constraints that stymie women’s participation in the labour force, we must look to increasing contribution by more educated women.
This, however, requires that we first understand why there are so few well-educated women in Pakistan’s labour market.
There are very few well-educated women in Pakistan’s labour market.
Women face much discrimination in the labour market. The latest Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Report on women in Pakistan observes that women are over-represented in work that is often hazardous. Additionally, women on average earn 38.6pc less than men, with the pay gap persisting even if both sexes have the same level of education and are doing the same work. This gendered differential is likely driven by employers’ bias rather than productivity differences.
Along with occupying low-paying jobs, women are typically less mobile in their respective professions. Harassment at the workplace and a social context in which women remain secondary workers irrespective of the nature of their occupation and earning capacity serve as disincentives to work.
For highly educated women, these sticky floors and glass ceilings raise the opportunity cost of employment, especially given that working women still spend long hours engaged in housework and childcare. Such constraints of time, a stagnant career trajectory and hostile work environment may see more educated women — who may not have the same economic imperative to work as those who cannot afford further education — simply opt out of the labour market.
Yet, it is also worthwhile to examine the kind of jobs occupied by women. Here it is vital that we note the cultural context within which Pakistan’s labour market is situated.
Legally, there is no industry that is closed to women. However, in practice, certain professions see higher concentrations of female workers, especially in teaching and medicine-related vocations. Both can easily be viewed as extensions of women’s caregiving roles and so, socially, considered more appropriate for women’s employment.
Similarly, for the same educational qualification, we see an over-representation of women in clerical and low-level administrative positions. These office jobs require minimal travel beyond the desk, thereby adding to their acceptability.
The suitability of jobs in these fields for women is reinforced through a national discourse on media and in the school curricula that repeatedly presents women as occupying only such roles. The resulting dearth of female role models limits girls’ ambitions and confines them to a few careers where there are only so many jobs to go around.
Another significant factor putting pressure on women’s labour supply is the intersection of education, marriage and the labour markets. And this works in some fascinating, and often opposing, ways.
On the one hand, we hear anecdotes of teachers discouraging girls from out-performing boys at school and college for fear of a reduction in their marriage prospects. Yet, the marriage market seems to be especially rewarding for female doctors. In either instance, the entry of these educated women into active employment, with an income that outstrips their husbands’, is prohibited.
The scope of issues faced by educated women in the labour market is large and this article touches upon just a few. In terms of the way forward, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2010 and the Protection against Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010 are important steps. However, a more systematic evaluation of the existing labour laws and their applicability to women reveals some glaring gaps.
Not only are most of these laws inapplicable to the informal and agricultural sectors where the majority of women work, they also don’t guarantee equal pay. Similarly, social security and old-age benefits are only provided for permanent employees, perhaps explaining why we see so many women in contractual positions within the formal sector. Finally, the Maternity Benefits Ordinance, 1958, is generally applied only to factories, leaving a significant proportion of working women outside its protective net.
Clearly, there is a dire need to revisit labour laws vis-à-vis women. However, updating existing laws will be pointless unless we see implementation of and awareness regarding the said laws. Here an important recommendation is the formation of ‘one-stop shops’ for all vital judicial and auxiliary services.
In this regard, gender sensitivity training for relevant officials and greater women’s representation in law-enforcement agencies is essential. Less than 1pc of the Pakistani police force is female. Not only do we need more female police officers, but also female lawyers, magistrates and judges. This brings us back to the role of curricula, media and teachers in presenting role models to our younger generations — breaking existing stereotypes of what is ‘appropriate’ work for both girls and boys.
Finally, we need to redefine what it means to be productive. There is tremendous value in the domestic work that women do. Unless the burden of the care economy sees more equitable distribution, women will continue to face tremendous time poverty while also likely remaining secondary workers in the labour force. In such an environment, the incentive for particularly educated women to participate in an unforgiving workplace will be minimal at best.
The writer is assistant professor economics at Lums.
Published in Dawn