March 30, 2023


March 30, 2023

Shahid Sattar and Noreen Akhtar

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 (Accountabilitylab 2022). 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 labor 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 (ADB 2020).

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 (Accountabilitylab 2022).

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

Figure 1: Labor force participation in Pakistan, 1993 – 2019 (World Bank Group 2022a).

Employment expansion for women in Pakistan was driven by an increase in self-employment and unpaid work. 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. Female employment was predominantly driven by more agricultural jobs, as the number of male jobs in agriculture declined (Ahmad, 2017; World Bank Group 2022a).

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 (Accountabilitylab 2022). 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 (World Bank Group 2022a).

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 (World Bank Group 2022a).

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 (Majid and Siegmann 2021).


If Pakistan closes its female employment gap with Bangladesh, about 7.3 million new jobs would be created. The share of working-age women in employment would rise from 22% in 2018 to 34%. According to ILO, if the gender gap in female participation is reduced by 25% in Pakistan, a GDP rise of 9% is estimated, which is an increase of around $139 billion (Ahmad 2018). Agriculture would be the top sector with the newly created jobs for women (56% of the total increase in employment). Government, personal services, and manufacturing would be the next largest sectoral contributors of new female jobs adding 3.6 million jobs (World Bank Group 2022a). Thus, enhanced FLFP has the potential to significantly boost Pakistan’s GDP.


Pakistan’s textile and garment industry employs around 45% of the country’s total labor force. According to the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), about 30% of the workers in the industry are women (GIZ GmbH n.d.). Leading textile companies in Pakistan are actively endorsing inclusive and diverse workforce by expanding opportunities for female employees and organizing dedicated technical training for their skill development. The industry is showing a strong commitment to gender equality by devoting efforts to create gender-balanced working teams in the companies. However, in order to effectively close the existing female employment gap in Pakistan, gender balance in employment opportunities at all stages must be ensured on a larger scale in the entire industry.

According to a study conducted by SDPI (2010), women are employed for very few trades in the textile sector (i.e. Stitching and quality assurance) due to low skill development and training. Women experience biased attitudes from employers and very few receive permanent contracts compared to male workers. Provision of female employee benefits such as maternity leaves are not effectively monitored and career progression is comparatively slow in low and medium enterprises.

Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) published its Social and Gender Survey Report in 2016-17 for one of its projects on the textile/garment industry. The findings reveal the top three challenges highlighted by the majority of women working in the textile industry. These include lack of transportation, distance from home, and working hours. Moreover, it was stated that female employees expect facilities such as separate toilets, separate workspaces and technical training as they help them perform better in a secure environment but are least considered by the management.

Importantly, the repercussions of the current grave economic crisis and low exports in Pakistan are experienced by the female workers in the textile industry. Many have lost their only source of income while others are paid low wages. Besides, a large number of home-based workers are involved in the industry, who remain deprived of regular capacity development trainings, and other employee benefits. But, with rising requirements on human and labor rights from the international community, the textile industry is increasingly allocating resources to increase female employment and provide a safe working environment and facilities to the female workers.


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 labor markets. Women are permitted to work only under exceptional circumstances which include poverty, the so-called acceptable jobs for women, and a progressive mindset 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 has 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).

Labor 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).


  • 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


Pakistan – Country Economic Memorandum 2.0 (worldbank.org)

Pakistan – Country Economic Memorandum 2.0 (worldbank.org)








Supporting legal reforms to increase women’s workforce participation in Pakistan (worldbank.org)

The gender gap and economic participation of women in Pakistan – Accountability Lab

Barriers faced by women in labour market participation: Evidence from Pakistan | International Growth Centre (theigc.org)


Where We Are


Follow Our Activity