Educated women suffer from the highest level of unemployment in Bangladesh despite a quota for women in public service and many private organisations' claim of being equal opportunity employers.
The unemployment rate among female graduates is about 2.5 times more than their male counterparts: 16.8 percent, according to Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) 2015-16 by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
Such a high level of unemployment prevails at a time when increasing number of women are enrolling at universities and economic activities are expanding, driven by the private sector, which accounts for about 80 percent of the economy.
Economists and executives blamed a host of factors behind the higher unemployment among women including a lack of interest among employers to hire women in white-collar jobs and negative social norms.
Lack of safety and security, sexual harassment and violence against women, unfriendly work environment and women's preference to do certain kinds of jobs are also blamed for high unemployment among the educated female workforce. “There is evidence that employers tend to have a bias against women in white-collar occupations because they are perceived to come with some costly extra burden, irrespective of whether such a burden is real,” said Zahid Hussain, lead economist of the World Bank's Dhaka office.
Dispelling such irrational perceptions and changing the gender determined division of labour within families require sustained awareness-building and determined leadership to change the deeply-rooted social norms that militate against female participation.
Executives said many private employers do not show interest in hiring females as it involves issues such as maternity leave and creation of other facilitates in the workplace.
High unemployment rate among educated women in comparison to their male counterparts in the same age and education cohorts is a manifestation of the deeper social norms that tend to discriminate against women in the labour market.
“We are still far from making enough progress in breaking the social barriers to female employment in Bangladesh. The burden of family responsibility falls asymmetrically on women, educated or not,” Hussain said.
BBS data show that unemployment rate among educated females declined in 2013 from 2010. The level of unemployment among them rose during subsequent years to 2015-16. At the same time, enrolment of girls at both public and private universities rose.
For instance, the number of girl students in public universities almost doubled to 159,472 in 2016 from 2009.
Some 35.27 percent of the total students in public universities in 2016 were female, up from 31.28 percent of the total in 2009, according to Bangladesh Education Statistics by the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics.
It used to be believed that gender barriers can be overcome by expanding access of women to education, training, credit and such other economic opportunities.
“These sound simple and straight forward. Research, however, shows that these are at best necessary but hardly ever sufficient,” Hussain said.
The QLFS 2015-16 showed that, of the employed population of 5.95 crore, 0.7 percent females are managers and 5.6 percent are professionals.
The unemployment rate is higher among educated women because the quality of education is low and does not match with the expectations of employers, said Rushidan Islam Rahman, executive chairperson of the Centre for Development and Employment Research.
In addition, women may have preferences about job type and location that are difficult to match with the supply of jobs. “Employers sometimes have biases and perceptions of problems about hiring women, which is not correct,” she said.
The government has a 10 percent quota for female jobseekers in public services to empower women.
But the quota is not followed in private sector recruitment, said Fahmida Khatun, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue.
Female candidates seeking jobs fall in a disadvantageous position compared with their male counterparts in terms of skills and training.
“Women's access to technology and information should be increased,” said Fahmida, while suggesting setting up technical training centre in rural areas.
High unemployment among women, particularly educated females, is a matter of concern, said ATM Nurul Amin, chairperson of Brac University's department of economics and social sciences. He went on to call for extension of the quota system to the private sector as well.
Any government support to the employers should be given with the condition that women are given the preference in hiring, he said.
There is a conscious effort by all in the banking sector to hire females, said Anis A Khan, managing director and chief executive of Mutual Trust Bank.
“The situation now is better than in the past,” said Sabbir Hasan Nasir, executive director of ACI Logistics that operates Shwapno.
One of the limitations is that women cannot do many jobs for security reasons. “A work culture and empowerment index can be developed and the government can provide various incentives against the index performance,” he added.
M Zulfiquar Hussain, chief executive officer of grow n excel, an HR and management consultancy firm, said a women-friendly organisation is important for females to work.
He said an increased number of female professionals took up various corporate jobs in the last decade.
“Despite good progression in terms of numbers at the entry-level positions, women are still struggling to reach the mid- and top-level.”
Hiring more females should not be considered only to balance the male and female ratio in the workforce.
“Rather, we need to realise the significance of a gender diverse workforce and how it impacts the overall business performance.”
Women have strong multitasking capabilities that allow them to collaborate effectively within various functions of the organisation. Female professionals also tend to take a broader, holistic and contextual perspective of any issue, he added.