Jharna Rani Dey, a cutting in-charge at Desh Garments Limited, has been leading a 70-member team for the last twelve years. She is the first woman to be in such a position in Bangladesh’s $30 billion apparel industry, where the majority of 4.4 million workers are women. Jharna, a mother to two girls, started her career in 1995 with Noorul Kader Khan, the pioneer of the Bangladesh apparel sector. Her story is that of thousands of empowered women of Bangladesh, who now enjoy the highest levels of access in politics, economy and leadership in the nation’s history.
The chief executive of the government, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, ranked as world’s 26th most powerful woman, leads a parliament with 20% female MPs, including those who hold speaker and deputy leader positions. In the 11th Parliament, 22 women were directly elected among in 299 constituencies. With 50 seats already reserved for women, the total percentage of female representatives stands at 20.3%. Still, in business, only a handful of multinational companies such as Marks and Spencer (M&S) and Microsoft have put women in top positions in Bangladesh operations, while local companies lag behind. Women are also in few leading positions in the bureaucracy.
Gender equality status
According to the World Economic Forum, in 2018 Bangladesh topped the South Asian countries in gender equality, ranking 48th among 149 nations. Moreover, Bangladesh is the only country in the globe where the factor-weighted hourly wage gender pay gap is positive. As per the Global Wage Report 2018, gender wage gap in Bangladesh is the lowest in the globe, as it came down to 2.2% last year against the world average of 21.2%. According to Women, Business And The Law 2019 report of the World Bank, Bangladesh scored 75 out of 100 in running business, while the overall score is 49.38, which is better than its Asian partners also other developed countries.
‘Women know they need self-reliance’
“Everything is possible for a woman, if there is a positive attitude towards workers regardless of gender,” Jharna Rani Dey told the Dhaka Tribune. What I am today is only because of my employers’ attitude towards women and evaluation of capacity, not gender,” said Jharna. If other owners and management give up their biased views, more women will be able to take up leadership positions, she added.
“Bangladesh’s women empowerment is much better than what it was a decade ago. Women are in better positions in workforce, agriculture, service sector and entrepreneurship,” Selima Ahmad, president of the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), told the Dhaka Tribune. “This is because of a booming private sector, the government’s women-friendly policy and steps towards creating women entrepreneurs by ensuring access to finance and training. On top of that, women’s awareness about economic self-reliance has expedited the participation of women in workforce, she said.
“Compared to the last three decades, in the last five years we have seen a rise in awareness among women that they should be economically self-reliant,” Shwapna Bhowmick, country manager of M&S, told the Dhaka Tribune. It is a big change, which has already had its effects and will bring great changes in the future,” said Shwapna. In addition, women are hard workers and their determination in achieving goals is another reason for success in the workplace, she said.
“What Jharna has achieved is the result of her hardship and capacity. As an employer we have just given her the opportunity to work,” Vidiya Amrit Khan, director of Desh Garments Limited, told the Dhaka Tribune. “She is running a team composed mostly of men without any flaws or complaint,” said Vidiya.
‘The mindset needs to change’
While women’s participation in the workforce has increased, the number of women in decision-making positions is still quite low. Women who are in leading positions in their respective fields say this is the next challenge for economic and political empowerment of women. The mindset of mid-level management is a barrier in bringing more women to managerial and decision-making levels. Business owners should play a role in encouraging women,” Rubana Huq, managing director of Mohammadi Group, told the Dhaka Tribune.
Education oriented to specific skills needed in the industries is another challenge. “For example there are a lot of graduates of BBA, computer science and other subjects in the market, but our sector needs production engineers and fashion designers, of which there is a short supply,” said Rubana. Women therefore have to select their line of education according to what the industries’ needs and focus should be given on vocational education, she added.
“On top of that, access to finance for women is a great barrier for female entrepreneurs. “Most women do not enjoy credit facilities when starting a business. Bangladesh Bank has made it mandatory for banks to disburse 10% of their loans to women. But in reality, this is about 2%,” said Rubana.
Effort needed on both sides
Women need to prepare themselves for leadership roles, said M&S Country Manager Shwapna Bhowmick. “In placing someone in a top position, an organization judges whether she will contribute to their bottom line. If the company thinks they cannot do that, an employee’s career progression can stop,” she said. In attaining career goals, the first and foremost condition is to learn and make oneself capable of leading a company towards profitability, said Shwapna .
“In the male-dominated workplace, there will be challenges and a woman has to add value to the organization through hard work,” she added. “On the other hand, in any organization the management has to hold certain positions for women, and create an ecosystem for women to get training enable them to reach the top.
“In local companies, we hardly see a female CEO or a CFO, but multinational companies have them, because they have that policy and ecosystem,” she added. The political empowerment of women will pave the way to incorporating necessary policies for empowerment of women, said BWCCI President Selima Ahmed, also a member of parliament.