Bangladesh and the Women Economic Empowerment Imperative

Bijon Islam
December 22, 2022
Bangladesh and the Women Economic Empowerment Imperative

In 2017, Bangladesh sent two female combat pilots to the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) – Flight Lieutenant Nayma Haque and Flight Lieutenant Tamanna-E-Lutfi. (Photo Credit: United Nations)

Why is Women’s Economic Empowerment Important for Bangladesh?

Bangladesh is facing tailwinds from the global post-pandemic shocks. A negative balance of payments and pressure on forex reserves are key concerns. However, while this is a global phenomenon across the world – Bangladesh also has exhibited impressive growth in the last couple of decades. That growth and its sustainability are often attributed to demographic bulge (60% below the age of 35), density dividend (1,200 people / sq km), growing middle class (expected to reach 34 million by 2025), mobile and internet connectivity (80%+, 60%+), growing remittance and exports. However, one particular factor that also sets Bangladesh apart from its neighbors – is female participation in the workforce

In Bangladesh, 38% of the female working population is actively engaged compared to 20% in India and 22% in Pakistan. The RMG/Textile sector which contributes 80%+ to exports employs a 4 million workforce, 65% of which are female. There has been a direct correlation between the country’s inclusive and sustainable economic growth and female empowerment leading to growing investments in health and education at the household level. This is also exhibited by Bangladesh’s improvement in the UN Human Development Index.  

Where do you need to move from here and what are the challenges we see?

While this is encouraging, women’s participation in the workforce needs to take place in all levels of work i.e. not only in the primary and secondary sectors but also in tertiary and also in management and leadership positions. 

If we focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates and as Bangladesh sees growing industry development whether in manufacturing, communication, or ICT – the country will benefit since there is a need for an increasing number of talents in this space.

If we take a subset of STEM – CSE (Computer Science and Engineering) given the advent of ICT and ITES employment in the country we can see the difference between employment rates between male and female graduates.

Job Placement of CSE Graduates from STEM Focused Universities in Bangladesh
Figure: Job Placement of CSE Graduates from STEM Focused Universities in Bangladesh

What is interesting to see is Job placement rate for females was significantly lower than for male graduates. When delved deeper we could see the following perspectives for this gap from employers, the reasons varied from skills to the absence of flexible workspace that accommodates maternity leaves, remote work, and working hours to family constraints. In addition to these, we are also seeing larger drop-out rates as well as a move to non-relevant fields.

Factors influencing employment of Female  CSE Graduates from STEM Focused Universities in Bangladesh
Figure: Factors influencing employment of Female CSE Graduates from STEM Focused Universities in Bangladesh

So What’s Next?

However, these challenges need to be addressed and the ratio of female participation in the workforce relative to STEM needs to increase. Few things that may help the process are:

  • Address Industry-Academia Gap: The absence of required skills came up as one of the top reasons and in general for Bangladesh even if the unemployment rate is low (~5% overall, ~7% for females) – underemployment rate is estimated to be around the 30th percentile. Hence a stronger industry-academia collaboration would be useful in achieving a  better job market-skill fit. One simple way would be to include more industry professionals as guest speakers as well as take their input in curriculum development.
  • A female-friendly workplace with law enforcement where applicable: Ensuring the hygiene factors like proper environment including flexibility in work-hour or options to do, remote work, security whether at work or at travel/logistics, standardized treatment for everyone, and addressing discrimination will go a long way. Points like the glass ceiling and differentiated treatment of females have come time and again and more so in technical fields like engineering, STEM, and finance. While advocacy for organizations is important but in certain cases proper law enforcement is also needed – a quick example is the labor law in Bangladesh mentions 16 weeks of maternity leave while the Central Bank dictates 6 months of maternity leave while the Honorable Prime Minister has mentioned 6 months is encouraged. However, the law should be true for all industries thus encouraging more female participation in the workforce.
  • Making role models more visible: Bangladesh is a country where the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, and the speaker of the parliament are powerful female figures. However, it’s just been a couple of years since we had the first female managing director in a bank. Making role models more visible across the spectrums will not only encourage graduates to pursue a stronger career track but also possibly break glass ceilings.

While the above are ideas that way help we would need to design specific programs to address these challenges and nudge the employment ecosystem in the right direction.

WRITTEN BY: Bijon Islam

Bijon is the co-founder and CEO of LightCastle Partners, an organization that focuses on creating data-driven opportunities for growth and impact for development partners, corporates, SMEs, and Startups. Over the last ten years, Bijon has led the company in engagements across 150+ businesses/development partners, 650+ SMEs/Startups, and 40+ accelerator programs in multiple industries including Technology, Agriculture, Health, Ed-tech, Energy, E-commerce, Logistics, and Manufacturing. Previously Bijon has worked with Citibank, N.A. and Citi Foundation and oversaw the execution of Bangladesh's first Interest Rate Swap, Equity Convertible Bonds, Largest IPO, Microfinance Securitization, and Block Equity Trades. Due to outstanding performance, Bijon received the CEO Excellence Awards for two years in the organization. He completed his BBA and MBA from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka.

For further clarifications, contact here: [email protected]

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