Bridging the gender gap at work
Imagine being a Bangladeshi mother. Assume the customary dogmatism, the role that the Bangladeshi society assigns to a mother – a caregiver and a housekeeper, applies to you.
Now, crank the difficulty up a notch by imagining yourself holding a nine-to-five job. This puts you in a position where you have to juggle your job, household chores, looking after children, and so on.
After spending a third of your day at the office and a couple more hours in commuting, it is difficult, to say the least, to stuff much within the remaining hours you are awake.
This is why many women in Bangladesh remain as “housewives” even when they are capable of working and earning.
An ideal society should put an equal burden of caregiving and housekeeping on men and women. However, the reality is far from the ideal. But empowering women economically within the current social constraints may very well pave the path of their social empowerment.
Flexible working hours and home-based work – the two main features of online freelancing – provide an opportunity to the vast swath of educated women to work around their constraints and be empowered economically and potentially, socially.
“Freelancing,” de jure, is a general term used to describe any form of work where the worker is not committed (long-term) to a particular employer and can be labeled as self-employed. De facto, this term refers to IT-related work which is outsourced generally through online platforms.
Freelancing can contribute to our economic growth through different pathways. It is a potential source of significant volumes of foreign currency for Bangladesh – a country that runs a current account deficit and meets the deficit mostly through remittance earnings.
It is also an excellent way to introduce our large young population to the high-skill service sector without considerable capital investment. As discussed above, IT freelancing has enormous potential for women’s economic empowerment.
But unfortunately, like any other technical job, women’s participation in online freelancing in Bangladesh is relatively low. However, there are policies and initiatives to bring women to online freelancing.
The government of Bangladesh has a vision of equal employment for women in ICT by 2030, which aligns with SDG target 8.5 and women freelancers have a major role to play in realizing this vision.
The Ministry of Women and Children Affairs has launched a freelancing portal (womenfreelancer.gov.bd) exclusively for women. The government has also decided to issue ID cards to provide freelancers with social validation and protection in order to incentivize participation in the freelancing marketplace.
Businesses are also promoting freelancing for women. For example, Coders Trust Bangladesh has been implementing a project which aims to create decent job opportunities for underprivileged young women through online employment.
Despite the efforts from different parties, the participation of women in freelancing is still low. There are several reasons for this phenomenon.
First, there is inherent uncertainty in the nature of the career. This can be explained using the expected utility theory. According to this theory, a person should choose the outcome which offers the highest expected utility. Expected utility depends on both the utility received from something and the probability of actually availing that thing.
For example, consider you have the potential to earn Tk60,000 per month in freelancing. But, as most freelancing “gigs” go, there is no apparent job security. Suppose, you consider it a 50-50 chance that you will get a contract.
So, the probability of getting Tk60,000 from freelancing is 0.5 and hence the expected utility from this job is equivalent to Tk30,000. Hence, you opt for a “secured” job that pays you Tk32,000 per month instead.
Here lies a fallacy
In reality, given that performance is satisfactory, the constant flow of clients offering employment in freelancing is quite normal. Adding to that, one doesn’t have to rely on a particular employer or business to keep her afloat. So, the actual uncertainty is much lower than expected (let the probability be 0.7).
The utility of Tk60,000 should also be higher from freelancing than a nine-to-five as it offers mobility and flexibility (this adds utility equivalent to Tk10,000). Combining these two, the expected utility should be equivalent to Tk49,000 (0.7x70000=49,000).
But most people don’t realize this and keep away from freelancing, resulting in the fallacy.
Second, there exists another puzzling issue that can be labelled as a “conundrum of social constructs.” To understand the puzzle, let us consider the two prevalent beliefs (social constructs) in the Bangladeshi society.
Belief 1: Women should not work “outside”.
Belief 2: A job where you work from home, is not a “real” job.
Operating simultaneously, these two beliefs form the conundrum, which discourages women from freelancing and also discourages them from getting a job “outside,” prompting them to remain housewives.
To solve this conundrum and the fallacy stated earlier, information can play a significant role. For example, the website exclusively for female freelancers has not received much response, largely because women do not know of it.
The government and the private sector should try to spread information to motivate women to take up freelancing. The information should change the wavelength in which non-participating women think.
It should help them make out the factual truth about the actual level of risk and the overall appeal of freelancing.
The authorities concerned should also take steps to ensure the existing “gender wage gap” in freelancing and the “gender digital divide” (women having lower access to technology compared to men) is minimized.
In short, these are some of the angles on the current scenario of women’s freelancing in Bangladesh – a field which has the potential to reinforce gender parity by contributing to both women empowerment and economic growth in the process.
Wipe away the fallacies, aim for the future!
Md Raied Arman is a Research Associate at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University.