There are multiple aspects to the barriers women face when they decide to work out of the house, be it for need or simply to pursue passions. Despite those facts, it remains true that Bangladesh has in fact come a long way towards female empowerment. The intentional push to enrol more female children to school by making it free, to making workplaces more inclined to recruit more women, to making child care services more available, and an overall improvement in visibility for female leadership has all contributed to this improvement.
Data suggests that female participation in the labour force has increased from 8 percent in the mid-1980s to almost 36 percent in 2016/17. International Labour Organization (ILO) data also puts female participation in the labour market at just about 1/3rd, which is significantly lower than that of the global average or near about 50 percent.
It points to the fact that a larger portion of these women are employed in low-level blue-collar jobs, for example in the garment sector, and even in the corporate world, industry insiders suggest that there is higher visibility of women workers, but not a lot are in decision-making positions, and rise through the ranks is much slower, often regardless of ability.
Talking to women successfully working in the formal sector reveals the same — there is still a lot to do and change for larger and more impactful participation by women in all types of jobs. First of these is perhaps the notion of perception about what jobs are suitable/ideal for women.
In the early seventies, society reflected tension of building a war-torn country. It was conservative and stunted as far as women in workforce was concerned. Back then, the only acceptable profession for women was being a school teacher.
"I employed salesgirls in early '82 when I opened my shop, Tangail Saree Kutir. We could also see few women in banks during that period. There were hardly any female entrepreneurs back then, perhaps because it was not accepted by the society.
"Some educated women wanted to do something of their own, and if anyone was in entrepreneurship, they would start kindergartens, or opened boutiques. It was at the far end of the eighties that women got into mainstream jobs," said Monira Emdad, Managing Director of Tangail Saree Kutir.
As Khushi Kabir, a noted human rights activist, pointed out, traditionally women were expected to become teachers, or doctors if they were really brilliant, at most. Any other choice would often invoke inquisitions or raised eyebrow. However, she also said that despite the lower participation of women in work, she felt there was safety in public for women, and she felt the sense of security even in the '80s. But even as jobs increased and so did opportunities like in engineering and forces and all that, the insecurities in many men has increased, and most institutions do not know how to treat women with equality. This sentiment is also echoed by other ladies.
"We do enjoy the same rights and salary as our male colleagues as per the scale, but when it comes to promotions or appreciation, the decisions are often unjust," said a female bank official, preferring anonymity. A similar observation was underscored by ladies working in one of the leading telecoms of the country.
About women in leadership
Many women have reportedly been asked if they were planning to get married or have children during recruitments or promotion interviews, and found that the possibility was held against them, without any empirical proof.
"For a woman to prove herself, she must have the opportunity to test her mettle,"said Bina Rani Das, Additional Superintendent of Police, RAB 3, and a President's Award winner.
She has been commended by all her commanding officers, and is affectionately called the "lady commando," but she said all that is only possible because she was given those charges, even if some people would have preferred it were not so.
Senior female colleagues have been overlooked for promotions in two cycles, without any credible reason, and were only given a raise as they threatened to leave, said a mid-level manager at a leading telecom.
On being confronted, line managers could only shrug as a justification, and one said, "It is difficult to justify giving a young woman a promotion over a man who has been in the industry longer," even though fully acknowledging her superior performance and abilities.
"My time off during pregnancy hampered my promotion aspects, and the supervisors did not make any secret of that," said another media worker. Both these ladies prefer to remain anonymous, saying this could invite unnecessary troubles in their work lives, in the relatively small industries. During Ershad's regime, women were not recruited in the police, which created a huge gap in the female leadership, and we faced a dearth of leaders to look up to. There are still a few men who feel that women officers are a burden to manage.
ASP Bina Rani Das, with a stellar police career of over a decade, said, "But this is why we have to come forward, and encourage more female participation. Seeing charismatic women in political leadership over the past decades has helped break many stereotypes, and improve the social mindset about female workers."
Another aspect of women in leadership is work life balance, and a supportive family is paramount to creating female leaders.
"The same behaviour or work responsibilities considered perfectly acceptable for men, are not acceptable for women," said Lamia Salim, a territory officer with the leading tobacco company in Bangladesh.
"For example, for a man and wife to be working in a similar job with equal responsibilities, if they miss out on a family event, it is easily acceptable to say that he could not join for being at work, but often, the woman faces rebuke as well as snide comments for the same," she added.
"Moreover, the expectations from women regarding taking care of the house are much more than those from men, which creates an added stress on interpersonal relationships. Many men, while accepting strong independent women as colleagues, are reluctant to accept them as comfortably as wives, even going so far as to brand them unsuitable as life partners in front of others. This kind of attitude is often discouraging to women in being ambitious, and familial pressures or societal pressures do get to people after a certain time," said Lamia Salim.
This does erode away female participation in leadership positions, as well as the bias and mistrust of their capacity and dedication. There are different organisations too.
"Here, it seems that many supervisors prefer to have female workers as they feel that women in general work with more dedication," said Tahmina Akther Liza, Assistant General Manager, Personnel, Apex Holdings Ltd. Even though she is happy at her own company, even she agrees that finding good workplaces for women, especially with equal opportunity, can be tricky.
About the mental barriers
One of the things holding back women is their own perceptions about their weaknesses. One of the first misconceptions that changed in her mind were about her physical "weakness," said Bina Rani Das.
Most girls grow up hearing about how they are not strong physically, or that they should just ask the men in the house with the heavy lifting, but the training helped me realise that I could be just as fit, and had much more strength than given credit for, she added. "I felt that I can do," she said, of her feeling more empowered as a human being.
"The police work to enforce law, so this is a place of power, which is why I do not feel insecure or unsafe at work, which is not true for many women in other jobs. But even here, society expectations do play a part. For example, no matter how strong I am, while going to apprehend a fugitive, it makes sense in the context of understanding Bangladeshi culture to have a team with male and female members rather than an all-female one, simply because the criminals will be less likely to try and act out when they see men in the team," she added.
A similar sentiment could be deduced from the observations of Lamia Salim. The nature of the product, namely cigarettes, which is essentially a male domain in Bangladesh, makes it necessary for her to engage and talk to various types of people, including retailers, small and large. Depending on the area, some retailers can even ignore her queries, refuse to talk to her at all, or simply ignore her existence. For these, she asks one of her male subordinates to communicate with them.
"I have learnt to take this non-personally. Just like I have the right to choose my profession and live my life a certain way, they have a right to live their lives a certain way. As long as there are ways to work around this, I take it in a stride," she said. Although, she says that the privilege and security that the company grants play a big role.
Here, another aspect can be observed— the work environment for women is not just a product of her capabilities, but also how the company treats the female employee, but even more on where the worker stands in terms of social standing. For example, a woman working in an NGO is automatically garnered more respect than a woman working in a garment factory, even though both their work is equally important economically, and in terms of dignity of labour.
ASP Das made a similar observation — while she and her compatriots who joined the police as officers, face a more educated cohort and thus the level of sexism-based judgement is lower, if not practically absent, there were people who doubted her capacities or wondered if she could fill in the shoes of her male predecessors, but the same seniors later commended her sheer dedication to work. However, it may not always be smooth sailing for ladies in the lower or non-cadre police ranks, even though female participation in those jobs is absolutely necessary for the force's effectiveness.
About increasing opportunities
The access to more education and technology has definitely helped women access more jobs, and the visibility of women in those jobs as well. It is now more common to see women in employment erstwhile considered to be unusual.
"Once during my posting in a rather remote place in Sylhet, I overheard a father showing me to his daughter, and encouraging her to be like me. It felt inspiring," ASP Das said.
As more and more women enter all sorts of professions, especially those which were traditionally thought to be unsuitable for women or more of a male domain, they make it easier for other girls to follow in their footsteps. There has been a conscious policy push at the government level, from offering free primary schooling to training women entrepreneur in ICT to giving free training to young girls to creating mass awareness against abuse and on human rights, Bangladesh has in fact come a long way in improving gender equality and female empowerment.
With expansion of the service industry, there has been a significant boost to jobs available for women. Add to that the access to the Internet, and an environment conducive to female participation in the work force and especially in entrepreneurship can be seen.
Over just the past few years, there has been a sudden boom in the number of women participating in online businesses, earning decent incomes, and exploring their passions, be it cooking, sewing, design or any other kind of bespoke service, like decorating bespoke dalas or cakes.
Sobia Ameen, a passionate baker, is also an incidental one. Trained as an architect, she posted pictures of her wonderful baked creations on her personal Instagram, just for the sake of sharing. But as people kept asking if she were taking orders, she decided she could!
For a while, she also pursued both architecture and baking side by side, but later chose to put all her effort into the baking side.
"I was perhaps privileged enough to be able to choose baking over architecture," she reflected, but she also felt that both her training in architecture and her passion for art helped shape her as a person, and influence her baking as well.
About the changing scene
"During an operation in unfamiliar terrain in Pabna, it was raining at night, and I fell into a canal by the roadside," ASP Das added with a touch of humble hilarity. Looking at her like that, wet and covered in mud, a local woman commented, "I do not have a job but I have a roof on my head this night, and look at her!"
But conversely, in a remote village in Sylhet, one of the places considered more conservative, she observed a mother-in-law giving a water bottle and an umbrella to her daughter-in-law heading to work, and it pleasantly surprised her, and she felt it stood testament to changing moods in the society.
The company does not treat us any differently in terms of men and women, only as a source of talent and judges people based on performance, said Lamia Salim, about her organisation BAT. But while working, it does become evident that everywhere in the corporate sector, more female participation leads to improved policies which can foster more female talent, even if simply as an added perspective.
Her social media exchanges have become more mellow and tolerable, with fewer rude comments about body shaming or colourism, or even the random death threats and such, said Sobia Ameen. But as to what that is owed to, she is yet unsure.
About practical challenges
"The girls joining the police force in the more recent batches are even more professional than we were, and working very hard and proving themselves as assets to the force," said ASP Das. This will only help encourage more girls to join, and make their colleagues more appreciative as well, she felt.
"There has to be a more conscious effort to train and mentor female recruits simply because most women in Bangladesh do not have the same freedom that most men do, in general, while growing up. This means that even with equal talent, girls may lack the exposure to be equally effective in their roles immediately upon recruitment, and the social aspects of the jobs should be made more accessible," Lamia Salim added.
For example, while there are more women in the workforce, at the grassroots level, basic hygiene issues can become very challenging. Both ASP Das and Lamia Salim, joined by a common need in their very different work spheres, attested.
"Working long hours on the road without having access to sanitary necessities can be a real challenge, which I and many of my female colleagues have to keep in mind," ASP Das said.
About what comes next
To build further on the improvement that Bangladesh has had in terms of women empowerment, it must intentionally continue, as a country, to raise awareness on these issues. "More awareness can encourage girls to fight for their rights and know about more opportunities," ASP Das said.
"The most important thing is to build confidence in girls, that they can do whatever they set their sights on," she added.
"The stigma has to be removed from girls working in different fields," Lamia Salim said.
It is very important to normalise the way that both men and women can have similar lifestyles, and what makes a man a hero does not make woman a whore, she added, reflecting on how the same kind of lifestyles can diminish a woman in the society's eyes while being perfectly acceptable for men, like coming home late or hanging out with colleagues of the same or opposite gender, even as networking and building ties remains essential to doing well at work. Moreover, becoming self-assured and confident is key, she says.
"After all, what can people do once you decide to not let it affect you," she added.
While parents have largely learnt to accept and love the girl child, it is now time that Bangladesh shifts focus to increasing acceptability for the female in the workplace, as salute to the pioneers who are already breaking barriers over her 50 years of independence, and also as an embrace for its younger daughters with shimmering dreams of glory.
Photo: Sk Enamul Haq