The present government has laid much emphasis on human development as its priority focus. Many initiatives have been undertaken in this regard — including, but not limited to, the comprehensive Ehsaas programme for the creation of a ‘welfare state’. These include promoting financial inclusion and access to digital services, supporting the economic empowerment of women, focusing on the role of human capital formation for poverty eradication, economic growth and sustainable development, and overcoming financial barriers to accessing health and post-secondary education.

These measures are expected to bring an overall improvement in the country’s dismal ranking in the Human Development Index (HDI), where Pakistan stands at 150 out of 189 countries and territories, with the second last HDI amongst the Saarc countries. If the government wants to harness the potential of almost half the population of Pakistan, it needs to improve employment outcomes for women, by addressing the economic as well as non-economic measures required for human development.

However, increasing job opportunities and skills training is not enough. Improving the quality and conditions of employment for women is equally crucial.

Despite getting higher education almost at the same rate as men, only a fraction of our educated women are entering the workforce

Pakistan’s Gender Inequality Index (GII) ranking is 133 out of 160 countries in the 2017 Index. This ranking indicates gender-based inequalities in three dimensions — reproductive health (maternal mortality and adolescent birth rates), empowerment (parliamentary seats held by women and attainment in secondary and higher education) and economic activity (labour market participation rate) of women.

There has been considerable progress in the areas of reproductive health and representation of women. Statistics for secondary and higher education attainment are also on the rise, achieving near gender parity and, at times, greater number of females in universities for some subjects. However, Pakistan faces a critical issue in terms of low labour market participation for women and its inability to engage educated women in the workforce.

An important driver of growth and development in the 21st century, women’s participation or the lack of it in Pakistan’s case is resulting in an almost 30 percent loss to the country’s productivity due to non-inclusive policies.

The Pakistan Labour Force Survey (2017-18) shows a dismal 22.8 percent women’s participation rate in the labour force, in comparison with 81.1 percent male participation for people aged 15 and above. Young women are further disadvantaged, as 65 percent of young Pakistani women are not in employment, education or training (NEET), one of the highest youth NEET rates among developing countries. Hence, the female labour force comes primarily from uneducated or women from rural areas educated upt primary level in school. Put simply, Pakistan’s educated women are not entering the workforce.

Why is it that while women are getting higher education almost at the same rate as men, only a fraction of women with post-secondary education are employed? The Punjab Social and Economic Wellbeing of Women Survey (2017-18) shows that, of the total women in the age bracket of 18-29 years, 22 percent had attained grade 12 or above education but only 5.5 percent were employed. The numbers are more lamentable for women from minority religious communities (11 percent have grade 12 or above education and only 2.6 percent are employed).

Unlike a few decades ago, women are now increasingly encouraged to receive education but not necessarily for the purpose of obtaining gainful employment. Their education is aimed instead at improving their marriage prospects. Consequently, women are neither educated, nor trained in technical subjects.

The Punjab Gender Parity Report shows that, in 2016-17, the number of female students enrolled in pre-engineering and commerce degrees was less than half of male students. Statistics from the Pakistan Council of Science and Technology further show that only 30 percent women are in research and development, as opposed to 70 percent males in Pakistan. Labour statistics in Pakistan also show that women are concentrated in non-technical, low-paying jobs, often in the informal sectors, that decrease better job prospects and job security for them, thereby increasing their vulnerability.

The broken supply line, originating often in lower numbers of women in technical subjects such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), constitutes a basic reason. Medicine is the only exception, where more women are enrolled in comparison with men. However, there are social rather than economic reasons behind this choice of profession, which have created the phenomenon of a large number of ‘doctor brides’ in Pakistan.

A bigger challenge is inequitable and sometimes unwelcoming workplaces for women with rigid employment models, poor facilities, lack of a critical mass of women to support each other, absence of role models in senior leadership and weak grievance compensation mechanisms. These challenges are all rooted in the complex social trends and powerful cultural norms that create gender role expectations and shape women’s choices and experiences in the labour market.

An examination of the social context and its reform requires a well-thought-out long-term strategy that is beyond the purview of this article. However, a few key measures to improve transition rates for women from higher education to employment are explained here.

It is encouraging to note that government policies encourage women’s education and technical and vocational skills acquisition. However, to improve transition rates from higher education to employment, active government interventions are needed to encourage women’s participation in high skill and technologically advanced education and training programmes. A starting point would be introducing incentives and quotas (if needed) at the education and vocational training institutions for greater enrolment in STEM education and skills. These should also be accompanied with effective career counselling programmes in higher education institutions, delivered in a public-private partnership model to ensure sharing of current knowledge and opportunities.

Another solution lies in improving employment models, workplace facilities and workplace environments for women. Various surveys have shown that the major obstacles to women’s employment, cited by women themselves, include domestic responsibilities, childcare and poor public transport. The problem of working with male colleagues and the incidence of sexual harassment at the workplace are also cited as important factors affecting women’s choice to work.

A greater flexibility in jobs can help bring women with domestic responsibilities into the job market. The age of digitisation and connectedness provides facilities that can be utilised in this respect. Rethinking job models to make them outcome-based rather than process-based will enable women to work from home or have reduced hours at the workplace.

Quality childcare in government and private workplaces is also necessary to help women balance their roles as mothers. The Punjab government has introduced daycare centre support for organisations. The efficacy and quality of childcare services should be assessed and, if found useful, childcare should be introduced vigorously across the country. Other necessary facilities, such as separate washrooms and safe/reliable public transport must be provided. Most importantly, without strict implementation of the laws and policies addressing workplace harassment of women, it is impossible to bring and retain women in employment.

Employment is not only a source of income generation and independence for a woman, but also raises her status in the eyes of her family and society. To improve women’s autonomy and employment outcomes, a massive social engineering endeavour is required that will reshape regressive cultural and social norms around women’s roles and place them in the high skill labour force. This could be premised on the significance of women’s participation in the nation’s growth.

The government’s current push for women’s empowerment, demonstrated in various policies and programmes, will hopefully help shape this narrative and lead to enhanced participation of educated women in Pakistan’s journey to prosperity.

The writer is an internationally recognised expert on development and women’s empowerment.
She tweets @fauziaviqar

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 20th, 2019