Yazidi women enslaved by Islamic State have been moved to Syria. Photo: CNN
Yazidi women enslaved by Islamic State have been moved to Syria. Photo: CNN

Globally fewer women work than men.

Multiple reasons are cited for this phenomenon by experts. One such report from McKinsey estimates that if the various barriers for women to join the labor force are removed and the Female Labor Force Participation Rate becomes equal to the Male Labor Force Participation Rate (MLPR) it could add up to $28 trillion to the Global GDP (gGDP) by 2025, which is nearly 26 percent of the current GDP.

Pakistan, along with the rest of South Asia, lags behind at the end in terms of gender equality, with a Gender Parity Score (GPS) of 0.44 as compared to the highest of 0.74 in North America and Oceania region. This suggests that, by even nominal increases in FLPR, Pakistan can derive the huge benefits, as in comparison most other economies have a smaller gap. A combination of data from Pakistan’s Finance Ministry, Bureau of Statistics, and factoring in the McKinsey report suggest it could add nearly US$150 billion to its GDP in a decade. The likelihood of this happening is a very low, because achieving (even relative) labor force parity will be a herculean task in this deeply traditional nation.

Out of the 61.04 million large Civilian Labor Force only 14.66 million are women, which translates into less than 1/4th of the Labor Force. From among these women, a very large proportion is employed in the financially less rewarding “Agriculture/ forestry/hunting & fishing” sector which caters to 72.7 percent of all female. Women engage in farm work on meagre income or many instances without any pay on family owned small landholdings. Without any benefits or chances of upward mobility, generation after generation of women have remained restricted to this sector, away from Urban jobs in other sectors.

Unpaid Work, Untapped Potential

Another reason for the large under-representation of women in the active labor force is their disproportionate responsibility for household work, like taking care of children, cooking food, looking after aging parents or in-laws. Various studies have shown that the gender gap in household work is directly correlated to FLPR all around the globe. This illustrates that women capable of doing skilled jobs remain employed in unpaid housework as men are unwilling to share the burden of housework equally. A common ‘tradition’ in even educated families in Pakistan is to send their daughters to medical school, not for future job prospects and economic independence, but to secure marriage proposals from well-respected (usually meaning “well-off”) families.

Unpaid housework is largely unrecognized and not factored in under global economic reporting standards, while it may actually be contributing significantly to the national GDP. Unpaid housework translates into a subsidy for the overall household expenditure. Money which would otherwise go to baby-sitters, nurses, cooks or maids is saved as the burden of this work is taken by the women in the house. In many cases, young girls are also required to engage in unpaid household work, which means higher education attainment is effected, resulting in lack of knowledge or skills needed to enter the labor force, and through this vicious cycle, women are only left to either enter financially unrewarding unskilled work or remain engaged in unpaid housework.

“Voluntary Withdrawal” or Social Attitudes?

An often cited reason by experts for the low FLPR in South Asia is that as household incomes rise women tend to leave the workforce as a personal choice, since they no longer need to earn the extra money. While this may be true to a small extent, evidence suggests it is primarily the result of labor-force dynamics and social attitudes. The Female Labor Force is concentrated in the low-paying agriculture sector, but a significant proportion is concentrated in the high-paying professional jobs in the cities. In fact, more women from the female labor-force are employed in professional jobs, than men are in the same sector from among the male labor-force. Therefore, the ‘income-effect’ may not be primarily responsible for the minuscule number of women in middle-paying jobs. Rising income did not push women out of the Labor Force or resulted in a “voluntary withdrawal.” While that may be certainly one of the causes, it is not necessarily the biggest cause.

Agriculture is the predominant form of work available in low-income countries and often does not require skills training and higher education. But as the countries move towards industrialization, as South Asia has, the FLPR falls because not enough women have had opportunities to gain skills other than those needed from agricultural work. Consequentially, an unequal number of men have entered the industrial workforce, even if they do not have the required level of skill, as preference is being given to them for their perceived “physical” suitability for the jobs.

This has also resulted in the “Feminization of Agriculture” as men leave the Agriculture sector to enter other higher-paying sectors, while women do not have the same freedom or are preferred. In a few cases, this can also lead to women empowerment, but only if women are given the freedom to govern themselves, own land and property, and make household and plantation decisions after Male out-migration to Urban areas; in cultures like Pakistan’s where a Patriarch (usually, a retired elder) stays back and maintains a grip on decision-making, this is likely not possible.

Dawar is currently involved with Youth organizations working for the Environment, Minority Rights, Gender Equality and Policy Reforms, in his home country, Pakistan. He is a Political and Social Policy Commentator, with an interest in Asian politics, history and culture.