Bangladeshi garment workers arrive for work early morning in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sept. 12, 2012.
Bangladeshi garment workers arrive for work early morning in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sept. 12, 2012.

The United States marked April 2 as Equal Pay Day, which "symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year." 

In the past decade, Bangladesh has made strides in narrowing the gender pay gap, lifting the status of women, and ensuring easier and greater access for women to participate in the workplace. As a society, however, it still lags in terms of empowering women and balancing gender workloads.

Regardless of women’s participation in the professional workplace, societal norms are that the woman will be responsible for household work. This cultural expectation, coupled with Bangladesh's dominant religious views, makes work-life balance for career women in Bangladesh even more difficult than their counterparts in Western societies. 

Progress has been made

Over the past decade, government policies have pushed the country toward attaining and maintaining steady progress in gender equality. As a result, Bangladesh has been ranked No. 1 for gender equality among South Asian countries for two consecutive years in the Gender Gap Index.

The index, prepared by the World Economic Forum, considers education, economic participation, health and political empowerment to measure gender equality.

According to a 2018 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), at 2.2% the gender wage gap in Bangladesh is the lowest in the world, where the average gender pay gap is 21.2%.

According to a report published in the Dhaka Tribune on July 12, 2018, the number of working women in Bangladesh was 18.6 million in 2016-17, a marked increase from 16.2 million in 2010. 

According to The Global Gender Gap Report, Bangladesh was ranked 48th among 144 countries in wage equity in 2018.  Other South Asian countries ranked much lower, including Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Bhutan and Pakistan, which were ranked 100, 105, 108, 122 and 148 positions, respectively. 

Cultural expectations

A study by Action Aid Bangladesh, called “Incorporation of Women’s Economic Empowerment and Unpaid Care Work into regional polices: South Asia,” released in December 2017, found that a woman in a typical Bangladesh household spends on average six hours a day doing unpaid work in the household, including cooking, cleaning, caring for children and elders, while men spend just over an hour on such activities.

Farah Kabir, country director for Action Aid Bangladesh, told the Dhaka Tribune that if men and women equally shared household work, women would be able to earn more because they would be able to work more hours or put in more effort at paying jobs.

While women have seen access to employment opportunities, education and health care grow, some say additional action is needed for on-the-job training, options for elder care and improvements in mass transportation. Because of the religious and cultural taboo in the country, many women do not drive, even though they are legally able to drive. Many women end up relying on mass transportation, where availability is limited.

Debate renewed

Many impediments remain that affect women’s work-life balance: The Bangladeshi culture expects women to cook, clean and look after their children, even if they have full-time jobs. The discussion around women’s unpaid household work were renewed by a speech made by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that went viral on social media nearly two years ago.

Sheikh Hasina, widely known for her straight talk and sharp sense of humor, in a speech in February 2017, said, “People get surprised when they learn that I cook. I don’t understand what’s so surprising about that? I am a mother and a grandmother. My grandchildren love to eat food that I cook. It doesn’t matter whether I am the prime minister or not, I love to cook for my family.” 

She told the audience that both her son and daughter-in-law are professionals and they share household duties, such as cooking, cleaning, caring for and rearing their children, and helping with their studies. Neither believes the chores are the job of a particular gender, she added.

The prime minister, however, pointed out that most households in Bangladesh do not share this belief system when it comes to sharing household chores.

“Most men would say, ‘I don’t know how to do this kind of stuff’ or ‘I’m tired,’ ” Sheikh Hasina added. But she immediately dismissed those complaints, saying, “There is no shame in doing household chores. … Men usually say, ‘We can’t.’ Why would they say something like that? What’s so difficult that they can’t do? If you can’t, you must learn. Both the husband and the wife must share the burden.”

Do comments on social media speak the truth?

Zahidul Hoque commented after sharing the clip of Sheikh Hasina’s speech on Facebook, writing, “I have been cooking for the Customs officers at Chittagong House, (of Customs Department) for last seven years though I am employed as a driver. But I also always feel delighted to help my wife.”

Benoy Bhuiyan wrote, “The Prophet himself used to help his wives in household chores…So there is no scope for any man to say it is not his duty to help in household chores.” 

Nazia Nigar commented, “Honorable Prime Minister, if every guy was like your son, we the Bangladeshi women, all would have been very happy house wives.”

Nurul Haque wrote, “We are really inspired by your speech, from now on we boys would also do household chores.” 

Arjumand Ara Bokul commented, “I can’t… why would they give this excuse? You are absolutely right, everybody must learn. Thank you honorable Prime Minister.”

Kamrul Hasan wrote, “Yesterday chicken ranna korlam halka jhol with alu …bolte pari ladies fail.” ((Translated: “Yesterday, I cooked chicken and potato curry. I can compete with any woman when it comes to cooking.”))

Ruma Tabassum Nispa vented, “Indeed, they (men) get so tired coming back from work while women despite working as hard as donkey never get tired!”

Talat Islam shared a personal experience in his comment, “I still remember when she herself served us her cooked khichuri [[a traditional Bangla dish]] at the Dhanmondi residence while we were conducting a blood donation drive in the memory of the brutal killings of 15th August (1991/1992). She thanked us for our hard work and said, ‘I should have cooked better food for all the hard work you are doing but couldn’t as I had to prepare food for all the people.’ ” 

Though the comments largely depict a favorable leaning toward the prime minister’s view, statistics show the Bangladesh culture still views women as primarily responsible for household labor.