The Invisible Workforce
In Pakistan, the term “doctor brides” is frequently used to describe female doctors who abandon their medical careers after marriage. This phenomenon contradicts the prevailing assumption that education alone is the key to addressing gender inequality in the country. Indeed, women currently represent 80 percent of the student body in medical colleges, but only 44 percent of doctors registered with the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC) are female. While there is no doubt that bridging the education gap is crucial, it is evident that we are underutilizing a significant portion of Pakistan's skilled workforce.
The increasing presence of female politicians, entrepreneurs, and police officers may lead you to believe that Pakistan has made great strides in the inclusion of women in the workforce. If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re not wrong. There are indeed more women in our workforce than ever before. In fact, Pakistan’s female labor force participation rate (LFPR) is at an all-time high. However, the issue is that, despite these improvements, the nation’s female LFPR is still an alarming 25 percent. This places Pakistan near the bottom in international rankings for female participation in the labor force.
The challenge is clear: how do we break through the cultural barriers that confine women to traditional roles and hinder their participation?
Technology: A Transformative Tool
Pakistan predominantly operates as a patriarchal society where gender roles are deeply entrenched and women have limited influence. There is a pressing need to address the socio-cultural norms and stereotypes that confine women to their homes and perpetuate the notion that they are second-class citizens. However, it is important to address these challenges in a way that is sensitive to the country’s local and cultural nuances. To truly unlock women’s potential, we must provide opportunities that align with their realities.
Access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) has been widely recognized as a powerful tool – one that is capable of transforming social, economic, and political outcomes. What is often overlooked, however, is digitization’s unique power to transcend cultural nuances in Pakistan. In a society where gender norms and traditions act as significant barriers for women wishing to enter the workforce, the digital space can provide a refuge unlike any other.
Take Sehat Kahani as an example. This digital health solution directly addresses the phenomenon of “doctor brides” by integrating women into the workforce through the provision of gender-inclusive employment using technology. There are several ways in which such digital employment platforms provide a smoother transition for a society that is often resistant to change:
· They allow women to circumvent restrictions imposed by their families, who may fear attitudes or harassment in the workplace, or hold traditional views about women leaving the house alone and interacting with male counterparts.
· They enable women to work from the safety of their homes, thus helping to overcome physical constraints that may limit their mobility outside the household.
· They provide flexibility for women to balance work and family responsibilities, a crucial factor in a country where women are expected to be the primary caregivers.
· They reduce gender bias by shifting the focus to women’s skills and qualifications, rather than their gender. This can, in turn, help dismantle stereotypes that define women's roles in society and limit their participation in certain professions.
Despite the considerable potential of digital employment for women, women are less likely than men to own or use digital technologies. Once again, Pakistan is placed at the bottom of international rankings, with the widest gender gap in mobile ownership (35 percent) of the 12 low- and middle-income countries included in the GSMA’s 2023 Mobile Gender Gap Report. The situation is even more critical compared to other Asian countries, with India having a 10 percent gap and Indonesia an 11 percent gap. While economic barriers undoubtedly play a significant role, the reluctance of even women-owned firms to adopt and implement ICTs highlights the cultural and systemic issues perpetuating the digital divide in Pakistan.
Ripples of Change
Integrating women into the workforce, albeit through digital employment, has the potential to bring about transformative shifts in expectations for women, both professionally and personally. With more women present, we can expect to see changes in the workplace: more gender-sensitive policies, gendered infrastructure, diminished pay gaps, and a reduction in stereotypes about female occupations. Moreover, the conservative stance against female employment may gradually evolve as families witness the tangible benefits of women contributing to the workforce.
Bringing women into the economy can trigger a domino effect in Pakistan. Their economic contribution can elevate their status within the home and give them a voice in family decisions. Additionally, there is a documented link between female employment and education: digital employment enables women to invest in their children's education as well as their own, contributing to a more educated and skilled workforce in the long run. Similarly, economic empowerment can improve the health and well-being of both women and their children, creating a positive ripple effect.
Fortunately, efforts are underway to bridge the digital gender gap, such as the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), designed to empower women through unconditional cash transfers, and programs like “The ICT for Girls,” aiming to provide digital education and technology access for women and girls in Pakistan. However, a noticeable gap exists in the private sector when it comes to targeted efforts to empower women in the digital field. This is not to say that the government does not bear responsibility, but rather to recognize that there is untapped potential in profit-oriented private initiatives and public-private partnerships. Given the substantial profit potential, it is surprising and disappointing that private entities are not already seizing this opportunity.
In the private sector, we must create platforms like Sehat Kahani across diverse sectors, like education and professional services. It is also critical to support women entrepreneurs in the digital sphere by offering essential support mechanisms such as mentorship programs, funding opportunities, and business development programs. Just as Sehat Kahani has revolutionized healthcare accessibility, envisioning and supporting innovative platforms in different domains can be a catalyst for positive change, fostering a more inclusive and dynamic socio-economic landscape in Pakistan.
Arguably, the greatest impact will be achieved by ensuring that women have access to affordable and reliable technology. While initiatives like the Laptop Schemes are steps in the right direction, our focus must extend beyond mere accessibility. We need a concerted effort to address the cultural barriers, such as family disapproval, that hinder women’s involvement in the digital space. Awareness campaigns are vital to this cause, not only to make women aware of digital technologies, but also to highlight the importance of women's participation in the digital workforce and the far-reaching benefits that accompany it.
The Catalyst We Need
Pakistan's deeply ingrained gender inequality and cultural norms may seem like insurmountable challenges requiring a complete overhaul of traditions for women to progress. Fortunately, the digital realm has emerged as a liberating force, enabling women to participate in the workforce and be visible throughout our society. This is not to say that we should keep women confined to their homes but rather to acknowledge that there are interim steps that must be taken for women to truly be integrated into our society. The power of digital employment is that it gives women access and allows them to create their own opportunities. We don’t need to herd our women. We just need to get out of their way.