In Pakistan, women’s representation in the workforce remains low

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Peshawar, Pakistan / Credit: Waseem Niaz, PakStockPhoto Peshawar, Pakistan / Credit: Waseem Niaz, PakStockPhoto

Having hovered around 10 percent for over 20 years, female labor force participation (FLFP) in urban Pakistan is among the lowest in the world.  To investigate why, our teams met with groups of women in urban provincial capitals and studied women’s experiences of interacting with the labor market.

They found that while educated women struggled to enter and stay in the workforce, women with low education levels faced even more limitations. This was indicated by gaps in their aspirations and lack of knowledge regarding opportunities. Many women had to drop out of schools due to safety concerns or financial constraints, while others feared resistance from family and communities if they pursued jobs outside the home. Women who worked struggled with low wages and the burden of household responsibilities. However, all women expressed a committed desire to support their daughters’ ambitions to complete schooling and work for pay if they wished to. These discussions motivated us to look beyond individual experiences and into representative data.

We developed a detailed survey to see what kind of stories emerge from the numbers. The first one covers the city of Peshawar, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), a province where women’s economic empowerment is challenged by rigid cultural norms.

Is female employment underestimated in standard labor force surveys?

Our quantitative work in Peshawar investigated whether standard labor force surveys underestimate female employment, possibly due to proxy respondents or failing to identify all possible activities that would qualify as work. Interestingly, the analysis confirms the severity of measurement issues. Comparing results from the Pakistan Labor Force Survey to those from our Peshawar survey indicate that FLFP could increase from 9.4 to 13.4 percent. An additional increase to 15.5 percent would be obtained if producing agricultural goods for own household consumption is accounted for.

Female labor force participation in Peshawar could increase from 9.4 to 13.4 percent by addressing measurement issues 

Findings from Peshawar Urban Household Survey (PUHS), World Bank
Note: Labor Force Survey estimates refer to urban Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, in 2017-2018. Peshawar Survey estimates are based on data collected in 2019-20. All estimates refer to individuals aged 15-64.

While FLFP is underestimated, it is still very low by regional and international standards. The reasons behind this are complex - they include social and cultural restrictions, rigid gender roles, and the notion of honor associated with women.

Social norms shape women’s labor outcomes

To mind the demeanor of women and protect their honor, many men restrict women from leaving home and, if they do go out, they are chaperoned. Women therefore seek work that can be done at home. Traditional honor codes also influence job selection and create barriers to jobs outside what is considered socially acceptable. These attitudes indicate deeply rooted gender inequality, often espoused by women themselves. A non-working woman previously employed as a school helper stated: “I think a woman should do home-based work. This way she can keep an eye on the children. She will be able to perform household responsibilities, everyone will get food on time, and everything would be done smoothly.”

Lack of education limits women’s access to jobs

Lack of education is another significant constraint to women’s work. Working age women in Peshawar have a strikingly low level of education, as 54 percent of them have not completed primary education and only 29 percent have attained higher than primary education. This limits women’s access to jobs, even those more socially acceptable such as public sector employment in education or health.

85 percent of working age women in Peshawar believe that women should work for pay 

Agency over decision-making influences whether women work for pay

Lack of agency also prevents women from accessing employment opportunities. Trends in decision-making show that 85 percent of working age women in Peshawar believe that women should work for pay, but only 7.6 percent of women can freely decide to work for pay outside the house.  Most women say their husband or father is the primary decision-maker on whether they can work for pay, either from home or elsewhere. One non-working woman explained: “Men fear that working women are not considered of good character and that people in the neighborhood think negatively about them. Working women struggle with mental stress about this notion too.”

Household production of services occupies women’s time in KP

Most women and men in KP believe that women’s rightful “place” is in the home. Not surprisingly, the production of services for family use occupies most women’s time. Men spend almost no time on house and care work, whether employed or not, while women spend on average 5.3 hours a day on this kind of work, decreasing only slightly if they are employed.

Peshawar's female labor force participation could increase by 7 percent with increased access to employment prospect information 

Peshawar, Pakistan / Credit: Waseem Niaz, PakStockPhoto
Peshawar, Pakistan / Credit: Waseem Niaz, PakStockPhoto

Public safety in transit to schools and jobs

As many as 30 percent of women in Peshawar report experiencing some form of sexual harassment when leaving home. The threat of sexual harassment restricts women in many ways. A married woman who dropped out of school after grade 10 said “I wanted to study further but didn’t like going alone. We feared that someone might be following us. Parents did not allow us to study further, and they had financial constraints.”

Access to information about employment prospects could increase FLFP by 7 percent

Lack of information on jobs also hampers FLFP. Most non-working women who are willing to work, but not searching for work, say they are not doing so due to lack of knowledge on job market functioning. This is mostly to do with how to look for jobs and which type of jobs offer decent earnings. If knowledge constraints could be addressed, FLFP could rise from 13.4 to 20.4 percent.

Despite the complex set of challenges that inhibit FLFP in Peshawar, policy solutions can now be developed that directly respond to gaps highlighted by findings from the survey. Some major reform areas to focus on include investment in girls’ education and skills development, facilitating women’s entrepreneurship, supporting safe transport and public spaces as well as conducive workplaces. These factors along with responsive law-making and implementation to protect rights of workers, especially homebased workers, can boost FLFP in urban areas of Pakistan.


Silvia Redaelli

Senior Economist, Poverty Global Practice, The World Bank

Noor Rahman

Research and Executive Associate

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