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Overcoming barriers to female labour force participation–I

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, Pakistan ranked 153rd out of 156 countries on the gender parity index and 7th among 8 South Asian countries, doing better than Afghanistan only. Half of Pakistan’s population is comprised of women.

If engaged in economic activity, this percentage of the total population is high enough to promote sustainable economic growth in the country.

However, female labour force participation (FLFP) rates in the country are meager (only 23%), particularly in paid employment, representing a massive loss of potential productivity.

The low FLFP has implications not only for the country’s economic development but also for women’s empowerment and safety.

The World Bank Group’s economic memorandum 2022 for Pakistan states that Pakistan experienced some achievement in increasing FLFP rates over the past three decades. It showed an increase from 13 to 24% over the period from 1993-2019 (figure 1).

Inter-provincial disparities, however, are high. For instance, Punjab has had higher levels of FLFP than Sindh, KP, and Baluchistan since 1992.

Pakistan has some success in increasing FLFP over the past three decades.

An increase in self-employment and unpaid work drove employment expansion for women in Pakistan. Unpaid work rose from 8 to 13% of the female working-age population while paid employment increased from 5 to 11% (mostly self-employment).

However, waged jobs for women (better-paid and more productive jobs) remained stagnant since the early 2000s. This brings us to the conclusion that there is an existence of a trade-off between female labor force participation increase and job quality.

On the other hand, quality jobs for men rose from 31 to 37% while the overall male labor force participation declined from 83 to 81% of the male working- age population between 1993 to 2019. More agricultural jobs predominantly drove female employment, as the number of male jobs in agriculture declined.

Pakistan has failed to increase female participation in the labor force, while its regional competitors have increased better-paid jobs for their working women to ensure their contribution to economic growth and prosperity. Bangladesh, for instance, has 60% more women in employment than Pakistan.

Although similar to Pakistan, female employment in the trade and hospitality sectors is low, Bangladesh has raised female employment in other sectors. This has caused a higher share of Bangladeshi working women in the agriculture, manufacturing, and personal services sectors.

The education gap between men and women in Pakistan is larger than in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, 63% of women and 66% of men have completed at least primary education, while in Pakistan only 35% of working-age women have completed primary education or above compared to 52% of men of the same category.

Pakistan, however, has a relatively higher share of people with secondary and tertiary education than Bangladesh. Workers with medium levels of education are underrepresented in Pakistan compared to workers with low or high education levels.

Even among women having higher education, only 25% of those participating in the labor force have a university degree, which indicates that women with higher quality education do not enter the workforce after their degree completion, resulting in a significant loss of economic activity.

The question ‘why most female university graduates do not enter the workforce in Pakistan’ requires more in-depth research and understanding, as it is crucial for the country to understand the nexus between economic growth and female employment to design policies to achieve greater gender justice.