Working Mothers and Childcare

This pandemic has managed to highlight the unequal burden of childcare on women, especially working women.  In Pakistan, with its strong traditional patriarchal culture where only 5.38% of urban women have joined the workforce (2017-18), this has resulted in one of the world’s lowest female labour force participation rates. According to the UN Women’s Report on Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020, for every one hour a man spends on unpaid care and domestic work, Pakistani women spend 11 hours doing the same. The disproportionate burden of domestic and childcare responsibility placed on women, coupled with unavailability of affordable and reliable childcare facility, has been the biggest impediment in women joining the workforce.

According to the ‘Global Gender Gap Report 2021’ published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Pakistan ranked 153rd out of 156 countries on the gender parity index. One of the factors contributing to this low ranking is the extremely limited income contribution made by women which comes at only 18% of Pakistan’s total income. In Pakistan, women do more than 90 percent of unpaid care work (ILO, 2019). Ensuring women can reconcile maternity with paid work is key to maximize the return on a country’s human capital and boost growth. According to a 2018 IMF study, closing the gender gap in the Pakistani economy could boost its GDP by 30 percent”

Most women empowerment policies are geared towards financial emancipation of women, through increase job opportunities, without taking into account women’s existing burden of domestic and child-rearing responsibility. The discriminatory traditional patriarchal social norms consequently inhibit women’s involvement in economic activity. The lack of attention given to these traditional roles of women has not only resulted in dual burden of responsibility but has also restricted the entry into the job market for women with small children due to the lack of availability of childcare (Chant, 2014). Those women who do enter the job market restrict themselves to low-paid jobs, typically in the informal sector (ILO, 2018).

Pakistan’s government still follows the archaic ILO Maternity Protection Convention 1919 which only allows twelve weeks paid maternity leave, which, as a law, is rarely followed (Ahmed, 2020). Being pregnant or a mother adds additional barriers to an already gender discriminating job market. That is why, in Pakistan where culturally women’s role is seen as that of a homemaker, a lack of governmental or organisational initiatives supportive of women has resulted in tremendously low work force participation.

Childcare needs to be understood as a business issue and not a domestic family issue. Employee-provided childcare will directly influence woman’s participation and representation at workplace. Organisations providing high-quality childcare not only stand out from competition but create a “sticky” benefit that fosters retention. Employees are less likely to move to a new job if it also means moving their children away from an environment that they love and trust. Economies will thrive if businesses invest more in supporting their employees as parents and families through family-friendly policies. Policies such as flexible working hours, safe transportation, maternal and paternal leaves and access to quality and affordable childcare options are not yet a reality for many parents and families around the world and especially in Pakistan. Research has indicated that provision of such policies has yielded benefits for businesses across various indicators such as improved employee productivity, health, engagement, morale, talent recruitment and retention.

The pandemic offers an opportunity to create change for working mothers, where organizations in Pakistan need to now think more creatively about creating a more flexible work environment and build the childcare infrastructure needed to help women continue working or return to work post children, benefiting both their families and economy as a whole.