How do you achieve a successful career as a woman? That’s the billion-dollar question. It’s hard enough for women in the UK struggling to break the glass ceiling and manage a work life balance. But in developing countries it’s even harder, and the consequences of those struggles are far more serious. At a recent ActionAid event, women’s rights policy expert, Deepta Chopra, highlighted some of the main challenges facing women in the workplace in Bangladesh.
More women in developing countries are in paid employment than ever before, which is great. Paid work gives women financial independence, the chance to develop skills and support their family so they no longer live in poverty.
But getting women into work is not enough in itself - to help women achieve their right to access decent and fulfilling jobs it's vital to also address working conditions, job security and the knock-on effects on the family. Here are three major reasons why it's so hard for women in Bangladesh to have a career.
1) You might need to leave your children behind in search of work
In many developing countries, paid work for women is scarce. The lack of employment opportunities means they are driven into low paid exploitative jobs and increasingly have to leave their families to find work elsewhere - causing often painful separation from their children and the additional worry of how the family will cope in their absence.
Rozina, 30, is from Bangladesh. She used to stay at home and look after her children Mohammed, nine, and Moshammat, 11, but now she is a ceramics factory worker in Nayapara, a town north of Dhaka.
She and her husband moved there in search of work, staying with his parents, and leaving their children in the care of Rozina’s father and younger sister. Rozina hardly ever gets to see her children as they now live a four-hour drive away. And when she is not working she is also responsible for cooking and collecting water for her husband's family.
2) Your absence will impact your family and your earnings still won't be enough
Women moving away has negative consequences for their families left behind as well, who often inherit what is known as the burden of unpaid care work. The responsibility of caring for the family often falls on the youngest members, which can then limit their chance to go to school or get a job to earn money.
Even when women do move away and get work, low wages mean that often their earnings still don't cover the costs of the family.
Despite working full time, Rozina and her husband cannot afford to cover the cost of both their children’s school fees, uniform and books. And Rozina feels that the situation for workers is getting worse: “labourers aren’t paid enough to live on,” she says. She regularly relies on her father and father-in-law to contribute to her daughter’s fees and relies on her youngest sister to look after and pay for her son’s fees because the costs are simply too much. “I would like my children to be educated. I would like my daughter to study medicine. It depends on what they’re good at.”
3) You have no job security and work in poor conditions
Even once women manage to get a job, this is by no means the start of a life-long career. Women’s paid work continues to be undervalued. This has resulted in women not being paid a living wage and means that they are at risk of being fired for taking sick leave or for becoming pregnant.
Shilpy, for example, left school at the age of eight and joined her parents in one of Bangladesh’s many garment factories when she was just 12.
She says, conditions were much worse in her factory. "If the factory owners know that their employees are not aware of their rights then they will try to exploit them. We used to work 14 or 15 hour days, we didn't get any leave, and often the wages we did earn were paid a month late."
Increasingly employers favour younger women and girls because they are less likely to need time off to care for children or sick relatives. As a result women have a ‘short employment-life cycle’ with an average of 10-15 years in paid employment.
What's ActionAid doing to help?
ActionAid works with women in employment to help them claim their rights and hold their employers to account through our ‘Rights Cafes’. Set up next to factories and led by factory workers, these groups inform women about their rights and organise them to take part in peaceful protests and lobby the government about their working conditions.
Shilpy got involved in an ActionAid Rights Café. She says: "It's not just in the café where we disseminate information but also on the factory floor. Now they [our employers] don't delay paying our salary; and they pay us our overtime accurately. They know that now we know how to calculate what they owe us."
The Rights Cafes are making a real difference to women like Shilpy. But exploitation of women’s work continues because of the unjust politics that shape our economy, and because exploitation is rooted in (and increases) wider gender discrimination throughout society. So if we want to stop exploitation of women in the workplace, we need to address structural change, which means changing policies and practices to meet the needs of women workers.
To do this ActionAid uses feedback from women we work with to shape our policy on what better jobs with a good work life balance would look like for women. We then share our policy recommendations with governments, businesses and international institutions that all have the power to create the conditions needed to give women in developing countries the chances they deserve at work.
Photo credits: Nicola Bailey/ActionAid, Amiruzzaman/ActionAid, Amiruzzaman/ActionAid, Nicola Bailey/ActionAid