Even at a cursory glance, it is evident that nations with greater gender parity have more prosperous economies. Consider any western economy where women’s full participation has been on the rise for decades and hence driven better performing and more resilient businesses; consider how South Korea has undergone significant improvements for women’s social standing and subsequently the nation’s economy, and where more than half of Korean women are employed and more than 25% of married women are employed as full-time workers. If we compare the context of Bangladesh, from which it would appear we are not that detached, we still see them gaining traction and moving forward, well on their way to be considered a developed country within the next 20 years, while we lag behind with our gender-normative biases. Bangladesh has managed to increase female employment in the last decade while also cutting the wage gap between men and women significantly. (World Bank Report, 2019). Like Pakistan, Bangladesh’s exports are majorly supported by its textile sector, but the policies employed in its development have been much more effective at keeping up with market needs. The significance of innovation and fashion trends in the textile sector is a key factor that Bangladesh had managed to keep up with. As a result, importers of textiles favor Bangladesh’s products and their economy continues to grow, creating a number of jobs at each skill level and harnessing the efforts of the population efficiently. Furthermore, despite producing no cotton and relying completely on cotton imports, Bangladesh has managed to profit immensely from processing and exporting high quality cotton ready-made products while Pakistan, the 3rd largest producer of cotton in the world, has failed to capitalize on it.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam present us with ideal cases, where economic growth was achieved in spite of non-liberal cultures. The religious interpretations that are commonly held in these countries do not serve to be restrictive to a woman’s freedoms, and this factor has allowed for much less stigma on women in the workplace, thus taking each respective economy forward much more rapidly.
This system fosters a trend that is detrimental to the country’s economy. A substantial level of opportunities is present for workers at each skill level, but the availability of these opportunities tends to remain skewed in favor of men, essentially neglecting half of the country’s population. The degree of skew increases along with the level of skill involved. For instance, the task of cotton picking employs factions of society that have the least skills, particularly women who are overlooked in other areas of industrial workforce development in Pakistan. At most, their job is as complex as ensuring that the picked cotton is clean. But when it comes to women whose capabilities extend far beyond menial labour’s, Pakistan fails to capitalize on these skills. As more skills are acquired, the top employment positions continue to go to men, while women are favored for lower skilled labour and face unfair competition with men for the more advanced roles.
The dichotomy that exists between opportunities available to male and female job-seekers is further aggravated by conditions such as rural settings. The graph below shows a more marked increase in unemployment for women in rural settings with an increase in education level, as opposed to urban. Although this has more to do with the availability of higher level jobs being restricted to more developed regions, this has a spillover effect. That these women will likely have poor luck finding employment even in an urban setting, as jobs are already scarce for the existing unemployed women in those areas.
Although the disparity between male and female employment levels is the most striking thing about these graphs, we must also acknowledge that overall employment in Pakistan is far less than what it should be. A key reason for Pakistan’s lagging behind is the quality of education and the skills being imparted, regardless of the degree level. A push for improved quality and standards in these educational institutes is required, as research shows that trends in the developed world are shifting in favor of competencies over degrees. 74% of respondents to a survey in the US agreed that there is a lack of skilled talent and updated technical-knowhow among the available workforce in recent years, so one can imagine the state of affairs in Pakistan.
An inability to keep up with technological development impedes economic development. 40% of Pakistan’s labour force finds employment in the textile sector, and while technology moves forward, graduates whose degrees have failed to keep up to date miss out on these opportunities. This is why trainings for skill and capacity development must be designed and must give gender-balanced opportunities. Each area of training can have an exponential impact on productivity and sustainability, while a more inclusive workforce can ensure a greater pace of development. Though advances in technology are rapidly changing the skills needs of the business community, developed countries exhibit how automation is an opportunity that can potentially create as many jobs as it eliminates. However, this goes hand in hand with the need for a consistently updated curriculum that can keep pace with technology and can be accessible to a majority of the population.
These technical factors can be viewed in every career environment in Pakistan, but the needs of each remain the same – equal opportunity capacity-development needs to be institutionalized so that employment can increase along with gender parity. And the change begins with increased awareness, which we have seen a wave of in recent years. The Aurat March protests that began in 2018 on the International Women’s Day called for that same awareness, with protesters holding up banners that condemned traditional expectations of a woman’s role. A revolutionary movement for Pakistan, it remains as essential as ever as proven by the recent petitions against the march due to its being “anti-state” and “un-Islamic”.
At this stage, we are largely cognizant of Pakistan’s economy falling behind its South Asian brethren. However, chief among the reasons is that Pakistan ranks as the third worst country in global rankings for gender equality. There is a need for significant progress in the area of female empowerment before we can achieve economic growth, by following a results based approach where women empowerment can be measured and seen by a greater number of women in the workforce.