Women in the workplace make sense. According to the World Economic Forum, companies with a strong track record of gender diversity are 15 per cent more likely to have higher earnings than their peers. The Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women on their boards significantly outperform the others.
In Bangladesh, many workplaces are still not reaping the economic benefits of employing women. According to the Bangladesh Labour Force Survey 2013, labour force participation for women is 33.5 percent, compared to 81.7 per cent for men.
The country is one of the world’s fastest growing key emerging economies though, and research shows that if female labour participation rates in Bangladesh rose by 2.5 million per year, it would take just 10 years for the participation rate to equal the current rate of male participation.
Safe spaces for women in workplaces
To celebrate International Women’s Day this year, BRAC brought together development practitioners and private sector representatives in a dialogue, asked women on social media what obstacles stand in the way of female participation and spoke on a Guardian Live Q&A. One of the responses received was:
“My male colleagues would leer at my body while my female colleagues would tell me how I should wear my scarf to cover myself. The supervision situation was so unfriendly that I didn’t know who I could go to. I would be nice to older visiting experts and consultants to later receive unwelcome advances. It is stressful to think that a woman has to be on complete guard at work.”
In 2009, the Bangladesh High Court issued a directive that ensured safety for women in the workplace. Despite this, a study conducted by ActionAid on safety and security of women in seven cities found over 14 per cent said they feared sexual violence in the workplace. In the words of another contributor on social media:
“In private banks employees are frequently compelled to stay back after working hours. The issue of safety, especially for female staff comes in because the reality is we face harassment every day and it is worse after regular working hours.”
Maheen Sultan, visiting fellow of the Centre for Gender and Social Transformation at BRAC University highlighted that lack of knowledge regarding what constitutes as harassment and what laws are in place make it difficult for women to come forward with complaints. “Only 37 per cent of women knew about government policies pertaining to violence against women in a recent survey, while 33 per cent did not have any knowledge that such laws existed for their protection.”
How can we change this?
Abul Hossain, the project director of a multi-sectoral programme on violence against women under the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, said that change needs more than just a directive. “Laws protecting women from sexual harassment are needed, and they must allow women to quickly access justice if they face assault in the workplace. He said, “Both men and women need to know what constitutes as sexual harassment and where one can go to seek counseling if they encounter sexual harassment.”
At BRAC, over 35% of our 114,000+ staff are women, and we have found that four approaches work for us;
1. Make gender equality a leadership issue
2. Measure key metrics, such as recruitment, retention, promotion, and pay) gender-wise.
3. Create a women-friendly work environment and policy.
4. Address or eliminate opportunities for bias
Read more, from BRAC and from experts around the world, on the Guardian Live Q&A.
Let’s pledge, today, and every day, to work even harder to achieve safety and equality in workplaces, so that we can all reap the benefits of women at work.
Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is a strategic communications specialist at BRAC.
Tanzia Haq is senior communications officer at BRAC Communications.