Choice, Constraints, and the Gender Dynamics of the Labour Market in Bangladesh

Nowadays more and more women in Bangladesh are joining the labour market. Yet the difference between the participation rates of male and female workers is still arresting. Acknowledging the influence of cultural norms that are shaping the labour market, this study analyzed why women’s labour force participation in Bangladesh is so low—is it by choice or due to constraints?

Researchers: Dr Naila Kabeer; Dr James Heint; Simeen Mahmud

Timeline: 2014–2017

Contact: Maheen Sultan;



In Bangladesh, the participation of female workers in the labour market has increased from around four percent in the 1970s to 36% in 2010. The male participation rate, on the other hand, has remained high, about 80-85%. According to the Labour Force Survey (LFS) data, a vast majority of working women are engaged in unpaid family labour or self-employment. To explain why there is such an immense difference between male and female labour force participation rates and why so many working women are concentrated in unpaid family labour, a better sociological understanding of the economic behaviour is needed.

This study is relevant to SDG 5 (Gender Equality), particularly to achieving gender equality and empower all women and girls.


Drawing from economic and sociological insights, this study uses multiple methods. The primary data was collected from a survey of 5,198 women in 2008; a follow-up survey of 4,606 women among them in 2015; and another survey of 2,500 men in 2015. For this study, qualitative interviews were conducted with employers, key informants, and a sub-sample of male and female survey respondents.

Findings and Recommendations

When women were asked about their preferred jobs, with the exception of teaching, all the activities they named were home-based. There were, however, some variations in the stated job preferences among women engaged in different sectors. For instance, a higher percentage of women involved in formal wage employment expressed their preferences for teaching and tailoring than any other category. They were also less likely to choose to rear livestock/poultry, which by contrast, was preferred by women involved in informal wage employment. Meanwhile, jobs carried outside one’s home were looked upon as the least desirable. Again, there were interesting variations in preferences by work category. Whereas women in formal wage labour least preferred domestic service and garment factory work; women in informal wage labour disliked begging as their occupation the most. The primary reason why women preferred home-based jobs is that it offered the ability to enjoy dual benefits from jobs, i.e. income-earning and expenditure-saving. This might suggest women’s strong domestic orientation, whether in conformity to purdah norms or to better balance their domestic responsibilities. But, only 20% mentioned “location outside home or in other people’s homes” as the main reason for their aversion to working outside the home. Instead, women’s aversion to particular jobs reflected two main sets of considerations: how the work was perceived by others and the adverse conditions associated with the work. It appears that the desire to work within home is not simply an active preference on the women’s part, but also a response to community denigration of the notion of women working outside and to other characteristics associated with the work, such as the need for hard labour, feeling of shame, harassment at the workplace, etc. In addition, the rise of female-targeted microfinance has enabled women to earn an income from home. While home-based employment may not have the transformative potential of more regular forms of waged work, it does allow them to earn an income of their own without incurring community disapproval. For many women, this is an acceptable trade-off.

Nevertheless, to enhance women’s financial empowerment, more active participation of female workers in the labour force outside the home is needed. In this regard, the government and non-government organizations (NGOs) can make their participation process smoother by raising social awareness, eliminating workplace harassment, and transforming the nature of certain jobs to make them more women-friendly.