It’s high time to #breakthebias | The star of the day
Gender equality is still an elusive term, not just in Bangladesh, but all over the world, despite so much economic progress and so much action by policy makers. Stereotypical political, social and cultural values continue to act as barriers to the advancement of women. This is why, despite the world’s irresistible progress on various fronts, women in positions of power are still rare.
In Bangladesh, women’s participation in the labor force has risen from just 4% in 1974 to 38.5% today. Women are working not only in agriculture or in the export-oriented RMG sector, but also in many non-traditional sectors at an increasing rate. Greater participation in education has created opportunities for high-value jobs for Bangladeshi women. Yet, the number of women participating in these sectors is still low and few women can access leadership positions in these organizations. The gender gap in leadership positions in Bangladesh is as high as 88%, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2021.
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We also frequently talk about the wage gap between men and women in many sectors, including clothing, construction and agriculture. More than 90% of working women have informal jobs. Due to the high informality of their jobs, their earnings and job security are also low, especially compared to men. According to the WEF, in 2021, women earned only 40.3% of men’s estimated income in Bangladesh. And the pay gap is also true for highly educated executives and managers. Women are often reluctant to negotiate their salary; many also don’t know how to negotiate. And the men feel that the women are not the breadwinners, and that their income is just “additional”. Such a thought also exists in some women, unfortunately. This is why the fight to establish gender equality is not fighting against certain sections of the population, but against the system within which these skewed values are born and nurtured.
The strong bias against women goes against gender equality in many ways. The 2020 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI) indicates that globally, 90% of men and women are prejudiced against women. The report reveals that beliefs and social norms hinder gender equality in work, education and politics. The GSNI also shows that over 40% of people believe that men can be better business leaders, and when there is a shortage of jobs, men have more job rights. Even more striking, 28% believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife. Although Bangladesh is not among the 75 countries studied by the UNDP, the scenario would not be much different here.
With such biases and barriers in place, achieving gender equality is not easy. In 2021, the WEF suggested that it would take 135.6 years to close the gender gap globally. The Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) considers four key dimensions of the gender gap: economic participation and opportunity; education level; health and survival; and political empowerment. GGGI also tracks progress towards closing these gaps over time. The Covid-19 pandemic has extended this period by 99.5 years, as estimated by the WEF 2020 report.
Thus, the road to gender equality is long and difficult. Many young university graduates enter the labor market with great enthusiasm. It begins to decline within a few years as they expand their family. Many women end up having to choose between motherhood and their career. This mid-term departure of female managers reduces the number of capable women in leadership positions. When their children grow up and they want to return to the labor market, their knowledge becomes obsolete. Employers don’t want to hire them with such shortcomings. Our labor market is small and new graduates have difficulty finding jobs. However, women must stay the course and not give in. They need to learn new skills and retrain. Many have become small entrepreneurs, although it is not easy to access financing from financial institutions. Bias also harms women when they approach commercial banks for loans.
Prejudices against women are rooted in most of us. Highly educated or less educated, rich or poor, male or female, we all hold similar values when it comes to women’s issues. Therefore, achieving gender equality is going to be a long and tedious journey. As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we must commit to walking this arduous and treacherous path together.
Dr Fahmida Khatun is executive director of the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.