WOMEN make up almost half the country’s population. But they form a very small part of the workforce with Pakistan ranking second to last for them in leadership roles.

Women’s participation in the labour force is actually declining as it dropped from 23.8pc in 2016 to 22.2pc in 2020, and is well below the rates for countries with similar income levels, signifiying a major loss of productivity and implications for women’s empowerment. Compared to that, the labour force participation rate for men is 82.5pc, indicating one of the highest gender gaps in the labour force participation rate. Even women seeking employment are mostly unable to find jobs, or are paid roughly 34pc less than men as per the Global Gender Parity Report. There also is a big gender gap in the unemployment rate, which represents men and women actively looking for employment. That makes Pakistan comparable with some Arab and African economies where women are discouraged to step outside the home for paid work.

Pakistan’s low female participation in the workforce is the opposite of global trends. The world average gap between male and female labour force participation rates has been declining as countries try and empower women through better-paid employment and ensure their contribution to economic growth and prosperity. Consider the example of Bangladesh where women working in garment factories — almost 90pc of labour employed by that country’s apparel exporters is female — have played a crucial role in growing their economy and alleviating poverty. In Pakistan, women account for just 15pc of the total workforce of the apparel industry.

Read: The harsh reality of gender disparity

Increased women participation can impact an economy significantly. It helps reduce income inequality, alleviate poverty, boost girls’ education etc. Women’s access to education, finance and transportation can help increase their independence and participation in the labour force.

Recently, the OICCI, which represents foreign companies operating in Pakistan, urged the government and businesses to make efforts to increase female participation in labour and management roles in all key segments to at least 25pc by 2025 in line with the SDGs by providing women equal opportunity, protection against workplace harassment and building inclusive workspaces. It recommended awards for “spotlighting outstanding women business leaders and mandating equal pay for equal work by adopting gender-neutral compensation and benefit structures” besides giving tax credit for organisations with women at the management level beyond a set threshold. These goals may appear easy to achieve. But they are not.

Pakistan’s political milieu, social set-up and laws still keep women out of the workforce and tied to unpaid work at home and in farms, in addition to providing loopholes to employers to discriminate against female workers. A lot needs to be done to change the way society looks at working women, including making and implementing laws to end workplace harassment and discrimination against women, and promote an inclusive, gender-equitable labour market in the country.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2021

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