Woes of the working woman

A few days ago, I was required to do some secondary research on the conditions of female workers in the readymade garments (RMG) sector in Bangladesh. While most of the study findings were nothing out of the ordinary, there was one outcome that struck me and has since been lingering on my mind.

Multiple studies on the conditions of female RMG factory workers concluded that these workers refrained from having children in fear of losing their jobs. They had no formal employment contracts and anything that might possibly hinder their performance was reason enough for them to get fired. Their empowerment, which allowed them more scope for exercising their decision-making rights at home, was also negatively affecting their family lives. Needless to say, disempowerment at work prevails.

This brings me to my main topic of discussion. How is the situation different for middle/upper class working women? The situation seems promising: increased participation in the workforce, same pay as their male counterparts, access to more managerial positions and greater social acceptance. Educated women have the option to have a career and a great number of women have chosen one over the other options. Women are not keeping themselves from putting in long hours at work, going on work-related travel and doing basically every other thing that is needed of them to get the job done. But are they faced with the same dichotomy of empowerment and disempowerment as the blue-collar women RMG factory workers? The situation is not as drastic as it is for RMG workers, but it exists.

It is in fact the biological anatomy of women again that is used to keep them from advancing in their careers at the same pace as that of their male colleagues. I am not talking about lower physical strength, but about women’s ability to reproduce and have families. This itself is not what disempowers women, but it puts them at a disadvantage in their work lives.

More and more ambitious women are putting off having children for their careers. The women who are making an attempt at managing the two are suffering from insecurities at both ends. Two weeks of paternal leave that new fathers are allowed to take are a farce on parenthood, meaning that at the end of the day, it is the woman who is playing a dual role; torn between being a mother and a working woman.

Women are required to prove their worth upon returning from their maternity leaves and have to face constant skepticism in terms of their performance by their colleagues and superiors. Not to mention the dip in confidence when they discover that their contemporaries have progressed and moved on to higher positions. They say that being a mother is the greatest achievement for a woman, but say that to a woman who went on maternity leave and lost a promotion to a colleague who did not put in half the effort. What are the mental implications of this on a career-oriented woman? Does this imply that middle-class working women would eventually delay or decide not to have children? And, what would be the social implications of that? Anything to do with the well-being of women has a national-level impact—be it education, employment or health. I also wonder whether Bangladesh as a nation can afford to lose women in the workforce after claiming its tremendous success in women empowerment and reducing the gender gap.

Now, I do not advocate that women be given undue advantage for having children and taking time off from work, but rather urge that employers reform their policies regarding maternity leave. If working mothers are to not lose out in their careers, there needs to be a change in perspective. Society has to steer clear of mistaking maternity leave for a paid vacation. Flexibilities regarding maternity leave management, working from home and openness to individual employee needs are only few of the ways to ensure that the interests of working mothers are protected.

What we do not want for women is for them to get so far in their careers only to lose their pace because of motherhood. It is also high time to look at paternal leave policies that allow fathers to not be equally responsible for their children and foster backdated socially determined roles that women should rear children.

Taking steps in this regard will not bring an end to the uncountable challenges that women face, but it is surely going to be a step forward in ensuring that the progress that women have achieved is safeguarded and its continuity ensured.

Shifat Ara is senior business consultant at Swisscontact-Katalyst. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way the views of Swisscontact-Katalyst.

Source: The Daily Star.

One Response to Woes of the working woman

  1. Its a very complex issue to dwell upon.
    Man or a woman must understand that in the business world, its a ruthless ‘war’ of survival of the fittest. There are competitors every where & a company to be able to survive & make profit, must do better than the other
    s in the field.

    A man or a woman has to make his/her choice of priorities in life. In life’s rat race for excellence & success, no body has time for a fallen hero, because the ‘race’ must go on, be it a small company or a large corporation.

    Bottom line is, you can not have best of both the world, be it a woman or a man.

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