Pakistan presently ranks among the worst countries in the world in terms of gender parity, only performing better than Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan. According to the “Global Gender Gap Report 2021” published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Pakistan ranked 153rd out of 156 countries on the gender parity index. Pakistan also ranked 7th among eight countries in South Asia, only doing better than Afghanistan. AL Pakistan accountapreneur, Syeda Yumna Hasny, takes a closer look.

 

Pakistan’s gender gap has widened by 0.7 percentage points in just one year. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), Pakistan ranked 153rd in health and survival, 152nd in economic participation and opportunity, 144th in educational attainment, and 98th in political empowerment indices out of 156 countries.

The report reflects that Pakistan has failed to improve its score on gender parity in the last sixteen years (the gender parity score was 0.553 in 2006 and 0.556 in 2021). Meanwhile, Pakistan’s neighbor Bangladesh has shown remarkable improvement in reducing the gender gap. In 2021 the country will be ranked 65th out of 156 countries in the world. 

Some of the key questions on Pakistan’s lack of progress include, what are the key barriers and challenges? Why are policies, systems, and institutions failing to improve gender parity?

A key driving force to improving gender parity is to increase women’s economic participation in the workforce and formal or informal economy. 

Female Labor Force Participation Trend

Women’s participation in the labor force is declining. It dropped from 24% in 2016 to 22% in 2021 and is well below the rates for countries with similar income levels. Compared to that, the labor force participation rate for men is 83%, indicating one of the highest gender gaps in the labor force participation rate. 

Even among women with a high level of education, labor force participation is low, with only 25% of Pakistani women having a university degree. Women’s low labor force participation results in a significant potential loss of productivity.

Pakistan’s low female participation in the workforce is the opposite of global trends. The average world gap between male and female labor force participation rates has been declining as countries try to empower women through better-paid employment and ensure their contribution to economic growth and prosperity. Consider the example of Bangladesh, where women account for 90% of those employed in the garment industry while in Pakistan it is just 15%.  

According to the World Bank Report on Female Labor Force Participation (FLFP) 2018, in Pakistan the gender gap in FLFP rates has decreased in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkwa (KP), Punjab, and Sindh provinces, with some variation across provinces. Punjab has had higher levels of FLFP than Sindh, KP, and Balochistan since 1992. Even after controlling for factors such as urban-rural residence, education, and household characteristics, women in Sindh, KP and Balochistan are significantly less likely to be in the labor force than are women in Punjab.

Reasons for the low rate of participation in the workforce

Normative Barriers: Marriage, Mobility, Safety, and Attitudes

Being married is increasingly associated with women’s lack of labor force participation, even after the effect of other related factors such as education or urban-rural and provincial residence. Perhaps because of pressure to provide for a growing family, marriage may bring constraints such as increased responsibilities for childcare and housework, as well as increased constraints on mobility and the ability to make independent decisions.

Limited mobility 

Limited mobility is also associated with women’s ability to participate in the labor force. According to the labor skills survey of 2019, only 30% of women could go to local markets or a local health facility alone, while 13% said they never go to local health facilities. This lack of mobility for women constrains their flexibility to travel to work and conduct business, thus affecting their labor force participation. 

Women who are able to go to local markets alone or accompanied are more likely to be in the labor force. According to the FLFP 2018, 17% of women who could travel to local markets alone are in the labor force compared to 9% of women who reported they could never go to the market. 

Safety concerns 

Closely related to mobility is the perception of safety when one is outside. This perception seems to matter when it comes to labor force participation. 17% of women who feel safe walking alone outside their communities or neighborhoods are more likely to work than the 11% who do not feel safe. Both safety concerns and lack of mobility also explain why women in Pakistan prefer home-based work.

While educated women struggled to enter and stay in the workforce, women with low education levels faced even more limitations. This was indicated by gaps in their aspirations and a lack of knowledge of opportunities. Many women had to drop out of school due to safety concerns or financial constraints, while others feared resistance from family and communities. 

Household Constraints

83% of women who do not work outside their homes cite housework as the main reason for not working. A range of housework and childcare responsibilities inhibit women’s ability to work outside the home, even in urban areas. While affording women flexibility in terms of hours, working from home limits the type of jobs women can take, negatively impacting their upward mobility and income. 

Attitudes Towards Women Working Outside The House and Networking

Attitudes towards women working outside of the home seem to be somewhat favorable. Urban women are more supportive of working women than rural women. Another key factor is the importance of networks and support groups for women that can help them find mentors and better work opportunities. 

Harassment in Workplaces

Sexual harassment in the workplace is widespread in Pakistan. In Karachi, which is generally thought to be the city with social norms most favorable to women’s work, 96% of the female respondents in a study of 10 private and 10 public institutions reported that either they or their colleagues had faced sexual harassment in the workplace. Existing job opportunities can therefore be made more acceptable for women in Pakistan by improving the workplace environment. 

The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Amendment) Act, 2022, drafted by the Federal Ministry of Human Rights (MoHR), aims to ensure and facilitate increased participation of women in the workforce; however, only 10% of the people are aware of the laws and only 2% of the organizations have implemented the policy. 

Lack of Education & Skills

In Pakistan, the low literacy rate, especially for girls, is alarming. According to the Population Census, the current female literacy rate stands at 36%, compounded by a high school dropout rate. Astonishingly, starting at 33% enrolment at the primary school, only 6.59% enroll at the high school level, reducing further to 1.2% at the university degree level. This reduces the chances of women emerging in leadership roles in the political structure as well as entrepreneurs and senior executives. 

Recommendations

Role of Media: The spread of media has positively affected women’s empowerment. Evidence suggests that exposure to visible role models of women working or in leadership roles can change norms.

Increasing Demand for Female Workers in Sectors with Attractive Jobs: On the demand side, policies can be targeted to increase labor demand in particular types of jobs in which women are more likely to work, such as textile and apparel and white-collar jobs

Educational Opportunities: Since education increases access to these jobs, secondary and tertiary education would be essential for increasing women’s labor force participation.

Security and Criminal Justice: Improving public safety for women is crucial to improving their mobility. Institutionally, women’s representation is also important; when women get into leadership positions, they create more opportunities for women to grow.

Transport: There is no state-provided transportation in most cities, and it is completely absent from rural areas. Transport infrastructure needs to be improved for improved mobility and participation in the labor force for women.