Cultural Norms, Economic Incentives and Women’s Labour Market Behaviour: Empirical Insights From Bangladesh

There is a considerable body of evidence from the country pointing to the positive impact of paid work on women’s position within family and community. Yet, according to official statistics, not only has women’s labour force participation risen very slowly over the years but also a sizeable majority of women in the labour force are in unpaid family labour. The paper draws on an original survey of over 5000 women in Bangladesh to explore the factors that lead to women’s selection into the labour force, and into different categories of labour market activity, with a view to gaining a better understanding of the combination of cultural norms and economic considerations that explain these findings. A number of changes in recent years, including rising levels of female education, access to electricity and mobile phones, the emergence of the garment industry, and the possibility for migration, appear to have increased younger women’s participation in wage work and self-employment outside the home. Economic factors clearly play a role here. The analysis suggests that factors such as distribution of available work opportunities may explain the pattern of women’s preferences to work within and outside the home. For example, lack of public sector jobs and high competition for community-based government and NGO work. Garment factories have emerged as the other major new source of wage opportunities for women but they are considered less socially acceptable, seen to involve very hard work and are highly geographically concentrated. Consequently, the main wage employment opportunities available to women, particularly the less educated, are informal wage labour and paid domestic work.

Authors: Heintz, James; Kabeer, Naila; Mahmud, Simeen
Type: Journal Article
Year: 2017