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Overcoming barriers to female labour force participation–II

Constraints for female labour force participation in Pakistan

Social and gender norms

Social beliefs majorly hinder women’s engagement in paid employment in Pakistan. Women are unable to independently decide their participation in labour markets. Women are permitted to work only under exceptional circumstances which include poverty, the so-called acceptable jobs for women, and a progressive mind-set within families. In regards to private sector jobs, these are acceptable only if high earnings are to compensate for leaving children unattended and transport costs. Female employment growth in the trade and hospitality sectors is almost zero in Pakistan. Stringent social norms limit women’s participation in jobs that involve high customer contact and shared working spaces with men. It is estimated that overcoming this barrier alone can close the female employment gap by 50% (ADB 2016; JICA 2017; The World Bank Group 2022a).


Women experience restrictions on leaving home to participate in the workforce. This concern is widespread among young (15-24 years) and rural women in particular. Thus, the societal norms restricting female mobility may affect around 70% of women in Pakistan. Importantly, what deters women from engaging in activities outside the home is the fear of sexual harassment and discrimination. The lack of transport facilities is another major constraint on women’s mobility. Efficient public transport is available in a few places and private transport options are way expensive (ADB 2016; JICA 2017; The World Bank Group 2022a).

Digital connectivity

Digital connectivity in Pakistan is limited for women. Only 6 and 15% of working-age women reported having used computers and the internet in the past three months in 2019. Access to mobile phones is widespread but with a major gender gap: 30% working-age women compared to 80% working-age men. Low access to affordable internet along with the fear of cyber harassment, lack of necessary digital skills, and stringent cultural norms associated with the use of digital tools have limited the potential of these facilities to support female employment (The World Bank Group 2022a).

Education and skill development

In Pakistan, the gender gap in educational attainment is wide. Around 51% of working-age women in 2018 had never attended school. However, in the case of those who have attended school, educational attainment is similar for both men and women, with higher attainment among women in urban areas. Women with secondary education often lack access to jobs that match their educational attainment and they get involved in unpaid or low-skilled occupations. Women with upper and post-secondary education have high access to wage jobs but limited access to training (The World Bank Group 2022a).

Domestic responsibilities

Women’s participation in the workforce is hindered by the heavy household workloads. This majorly includes childcare burden due to unequal distribution of childcare responsibilities across parents. Women are expected to forego economic opportunities in favor of the so-called respectable domestic roles (Majid and Siegmann 2021; The World Bank Group 2022a).

Home-based work

Between 1993 and 2018, about half of the increase in paid female employment came from jobs performed at home. Pakistan has 4.4 million home-based workers of whom 3.6 million are women. Home-based work has become an acceptable form of female employment in Pakistan, under the continued pressure of domestic responsibilities and social norms. Working from home has its own challenges for women. Home-based workers are the invisible workforce in Pakistan. The burden of work is unhealthy and women despite being full earners online are considered housewives (The World Bank Group 2022b).

Labour demand

Data indicates that gendered occupations are shaped also by employers’ perceptions and preferences for employing women. The belief that hiring women disrupts the workplace exists in five South Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan). In Pakistan, gender segregation is also evident across industries. For instance, 31% to 41% of jobs in the manufacturing, construction, wholesale, retail, hotel and restaurant, transport, storage, and postal sectors prefer male workers (The World Bank Group 2022a).

Policy recommendations

* Invest in safe and affordable transport for women, with a focus on female-only transport

* Digital connectivity and digitally-enabled jobs that include increasing access to affordable internet and training on cyber safety and skill development

* Invest in skill development and training programs to consider innovative options to support wage employment opportunities for women with educational attainment

* Existing laws relating to maternity leave and childcare must be enforced and investment in childcare support facilities must be made by the employer organizations in all sectors

* Conditions and opportunities for home-based workers must be improved by providing good working conditions and opportunities for learning and networking.

* Strategies and policies must be developed to support women entering new sectors or traditionally male-dominated sectors, and gender-based discrimination in recruitment as well as workplace harassment must be abolished

* Enforcement of laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, evaluation of their impacts and establishment of communication modes to discourage unsuitable workplaces for women.

Shahid Sattar and Noreen Akhtar, "Overcoming barriers to female labour force participation–II," Business recorder. 2023-04-02.
Keywords: Economics , Social sciences , World Bank , Digital connectivity , Sexual harassment , Economic opportunities , Afghanistan , Bangladesh , India , Nepal , Pakistan , JICA , ADB

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