This project seeks to understand the gender dynamics of the labour market in the context of Bangladesh. Labour markets are recognised as key institutional routes through which the benefits of growth are distributed across populations. Moreover, empirical research suggests that women’s access to labour market opportunities, particularly those which offer predictable incomes and ‘decent’ working conditions, can strengthen their voice and agency within the family and in the wider community. Yet, despite high rates of growth in recent decades, marked gender disparities in labour market outcomes persist across much of South Asia. These disparities are all the more puzzling in the context of Bangladesh. While it is one of the poorer countries in the region, it has not only shared in its high growth rates but has made more rapid progress in other aspects of gender equality, eg health and education. This project will combine different research methods in order to carry out a detailed investigation into the interactions between individual choice, cultural norms and economic structures which might explain persisting gender disparities in labour market outcomes in the Bangladesh context as well as how these interactions might vary for men and women from different social groups and geographical locations.
Growing evidence suggests that women's employment acts as a structural catalyst for various forms of change, such as household poverty reduction and improvements in the education and well being of family members, that serve to make growth more inclusive. While this effect works largely through the impact of paid work on women's voice and agency, our earlier research in Bangladesh suggests that the effect is strongest and most consistent when women have access to better paid and regular work outside the home. Yet in Bangladesh, as in much of South Asia, women are largely absent from these forms of work. Our research sets out to explore the various factors that can help to expand and improve women's labour market options with a view to working closely with those who are in a position to act on the practical implications of the research. Because of important commonalites in the cultural norms that restrict women's labour force participation across South Asia, we believe that our findings will have a wider relevance. Our aim is to move beyond the general insights on women's labour market behaviour documented in the academic literature to a more detailed analysis of the interaction between individual choice and constraints of various kinds at both household level and in the wider institutional and political context. While some of these constraints are likely to be more intractable than others, addressing those that are amenable to public action may serve to undermine the more resilient constraints over time. The primary beneficiaries of our research will be those women in Bangladesh who would like to take up decent and productive employment, but are blocked by various constraints. In the longer run, it will be low-income households who will benefit since women's earning capacity is likely to contribute to poverty reduction. However, these benefits will depend very much on our capacity to engage with the various stakeholders who are in a position to act on our findings. We anticipate 3 constituencies for our research. First, there will be a range of national-level stakeholders likely to be interested in our findings from both development and women's empowerment perspectives. These will include employers' associations, trade unions, labour organisations, women's groups, legal rights activists, local government officials, non-government organisations involved in promoting women's paid work and skills development, and local representatives of the international donor community, particularly ILO, DFID, the World Bank and UN Women. We will set up a small Reference Group drawn from this constituency at the outset to work with us throughout the project. We will work with the Group to engage with the wider constituency of national stakeholders through an inception workshop to be held in Dhaka within three months of starting the project. The aim will be to share our research objectives and seek advice on key questions that the research should address. We will also organise a workshop at the final stages to disseminate our findings and explore its practical implications for different groups of stakeholders. Internationally, we would seek to engage with organisations that are interested in, or would benefit from, the policy implications of our findings: the ILO, WIEGO, SEWA, the World Bank, UN Women, DFID and other bilateral donors that have placed women's economic empowerment high on their agenda. A small Reference Group will be constituted from this group in order to provide advice and assist us in our efforts to disseminate relevant findings and recommendations. Finally, we will seek to expand and strengthen the public constituency for women's economic empowerment in Bangladesh by using our media strategy to engage students and the general public in a wider debate to challenge cultural preconceptions about women's work and the widespread belief that their absence from the labour market is purely a matter of choice.