Components and concepts of our society are always not given. We create and give names, meanings and set roles. Socially constructed ideas are pushed forward with our daily practices over the passage of time to generations. Gender is a kind of socially created phenomenon. It has enormous impacts on male-female gender roles and relations. Female labor force participation is now a big deal of study. Recent female participation in labor force in Bangladesh is ameliorating compared to their male counterparts but comes to circle a point in previous years. Female labor force participation is wandering hither and thither around 36%. This paper will basically try to observe this stagnation with social factors which affect women’s participation in labor force and show how social construction (related to values, norms, ideals of gender) of women generates their lower participation in labor force in the context of Bangladesh.
Current status of women in BD labor market:
If we could define employment in terms of just working, it would have been easy to estimate women’s participation in labor force. In reality, almost no woman sits idly in morning within Bangladesh where a number of lazy men without working can be found. But the way of calculation of employment is very notorious. Traditional unemployment calculating definition sets some criterions which try to define people who are in proper age and ready to work but without work for a certain period in spite of seeking job with current labor value. Employment measurement excludes unpaid job (domestic chores, child rearing, etc.) that is why most of the women are unemployed by definition in Bangladesh as if these works do not create any economic value. What if these women were working the same work for others? Or hire other women to get done this job vise-versa. Then employment definition would have counted them as employed persons. Our perception of seeing everything in material terms is the main reason of excluding women’s massive contribution of building a nation in GDP.
Despite the faults of employment definition, women’s participation in current labor market is shifting positively. Even women’s participation growth (4.6:1) is suppressing their male counterparts according to recent studies. Women are currently representing 36.3% labor force participation comparing 8% in 1983/84, 18% in 1995/96, and 23% in 1999/2000 respectively. This statistics indicates not dramatic but a gradual progress of female labor force participation. Though authors point out recent women’s participation in labor market is basically lower level manual jobs which are carried out by physical strength in the absence of automation. Above discrimination discourse, most of the women are paid at a subsistence level. Notably their representation in executive or managerial level is very poor. Quantitative improvements without qualitative women empowerment are very much evident in this type of labor force participation trend. After all abovementioned statistics provide a positive sign of women’s participation in labor force. But the concerning matter is that the percentage of female participation in labor market has remained static for a few years. There may be some economic and non-economic reasons behind it. But the this paper would highlight how social customs, norms, values exclude or discourage women’s role inside formal labor force participation in the next section.
Social culture constructing female workforce participation:
We have already discussed that social beliefs, values, norms; ideological affiliation, religious leanings, etc. have a socio-cultural consequence on us. Gender has a kind of imaginary attributes in our perception. We see some roles and duties in our visual mind automatically when we pronounce “Male: masculine” and “Female: feminine”. Not naturally but artificially we construct the idea “men should be the breadwinner and women should be the homemaker.” Women’s participation in labor force is also driven by our long held cultural perceptions in Bangladesh. From physics’ point of view, force is subject to counter force. Economic production is also driven by demand supply curve. Similarly women’s participation in labor force is influenced by social expectation. Most of the studies within Bangladesh and beyond have shown a strong reluctance towards women’s labor force participation. This paper strongly shows that this negative social expectation towards women is the first and foremost reason behind their lower enrollment in workforce. Women’s labor force participation was not positively taken since our society is patriarchal in its nature. For example, women’s education enrollment gradually declines on the basis of hierarchy. Regrettably graduate women are most prone to be unemployed. Interestingly a large number of women also do not find an interest in formal job sectors. Here social expectation is to see them in home and take care of family. This expectation has become a structure which subconsciously influences our decision. Over the long period of time, it has created multifaceted barriers to women’s entry into formal jobs. Historically women were on the forefront of working initiatives in primitive labor system. Social construction of women as feminine gender has changed the historical fact as if women were born to be at home.
A quite number of women have overcome this social expectation but face challenges to carry on their career in formal job sectors. Undesirably a large number of women get married even before their eighteen in Bangladesh. So employed women have to perform twofold task in their daily life since it is a patriarchal society. Family and workplace are two spheres where they have to perform equally. Burden sharing from partners is still very absence due to fixed gender roles and responsibilities. It is very rare to find husbands helping their working wives in kitchen. So, it is logical and natural that imbalance will happen when we try to balance between two co-equal things. Take care of family is very important as a whole but legal responsibilities of workplace are unavoidable. Women are most vulnerable to solve this dilemma and finally most of them shrink in deep sea (leaving job) losing their identity. On the other hand it is unimaginable fate of women that they do not get social recognition for their inestimable contributions in family as well. There could be a way to solve this problem by social reformation.
Male dominated organizational behavior has also been critical to women. Safety and security question of women has concerning reason at workplaces. From bullying to sexual harassment by seniors and boos is nothing new in the social context of Bangladesh. Government authority could not provide women friendly workplaces and legal safety measures towards women yet. Fears of family members and women themselves are not totally baseless since incidents are happening very often. Working environment and shifts are inappropriate with the special needs of women. Abovementioned socio-cultural aspects largely along with other factors are averting women’s entry into formal labor force.
Besides the obstacles inhibiting women’s labor force participation, there are some causes and its impacts of female labor force to reconstruct the social structure which slightly have been mentioned below.
First and foremost more and more women’s participation can change the cultural barriers. It has twofold consequence. First culture prevents female’s labor force participation but their participation in return changes cultural dimensions. We can hope that the quantity of participation will bring transition in quality in future. Once women started to enter into garments sectors, it has transformed with women’s needs over time. Pessimistic social expectation will reverse when society realize fuller potentiality of women. We should let them in and it will create domino effect on other women.
Perception changing takes time. Government and NGOs have much contribution in reshaping social structure. NGOs impact on women empowerment is highly admirable in rural areas. All-encompassing initiative by government and civil society or private sector can initiate a new movement in female labor participation. Advocating special gender needs of women can be included in educational syllabus. Vast inter-disciplinary research is needed for hauling current structure. Gender disparity should be dispatched over time. New thoughts should be created replacing superstitions and reluctances. As a result, more social acceptance of working women would be created among social beings.
Western writers note religion in Bangladesh causing women’s unemployment. If religion is the source and center of superstition about women, then religion can be equipped to battle this superstition. Experts say the recent rise of Islamic militancy in Bangladesh was a result of theological misinterpretation. Bangladesh government cleverly used theological interpreters to unmask terrorism and was quite successful to give the actual massage of Islam. Similarly authorities can use religious leaders to dismantle religious misinterpretation towards women. Even the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) help for his wives in kitchen can be quoted to incite awareness among male persons to help their wives! It could reduce the burden of women and patriarchy would replace by a good helping norm. More and more women’s participation in labor force will be taken place while religious barriers are thrown away and cooperation comes out from males. Both things can provide working women with warm relaxation.
Legal procedures are also crucial to establish justice. Many strongly negate the term equality while ensuring justice towards women. Economists nowadays profess fair trade instead of free trade. Similarly working women’s rights should be protected in terms of equity. A World Bank’s estimation shows that women work more hours than men. So they deserve more than equality of fifty-fifty percentage. It is high time we recognized women’s unpaid work in GDP. Old institutional forms would be inadequate to meet the challenges. Government should intervene by advocating on women’s rights, safety, duty hours, managing child care, maternity leave, and health issues with lawful channel. Family friendly laws should be introduced even where men can contribute. After all women’s engagement in formal labor force contains economic growth in Bangladesh so government should encourage more women to participate in labor force.
It could be concluded by stating that socio-cultural norms play decisive role in women’s decision of labor force participation and changing these norms through abovementioned recommendations can end up stagnant situation of female labor force participation in Bangladesh.
The author is a student of International Relation at University of Dhaka.