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Bangladesh Country Director, Practical Action

For women in Bangladesh, as well as the rest of the Asian subcontinent, being employed does not always equate to being empowered. Achieving professional excellence is extremely challenging in general, but it is all the more difficult for women in my country, Bangladesh. Working women are subjected to an inherent contempt that jeopardies their stride throughout the course of their career and their being.

This contempt begins taking shape from the very beginning of a women’s career – the time when she must decide what line of education or profession she will pursue. Unfortunately, when young women are at the verge of making this very crucial decision, which can potentially have life-altering ramifications for her, her interests and passion take a backseat. Grounded on the notion that women are to pursue a line of a profession that is comfortable and in that, often uninspiring, she meets a roadblock even before her career begins. The narrative that a young girl can pursue a challenging and demanding career is yet to be established in society. Due to familial pressure, many promising young women are sadly bound to forego their passion.

When she crosses into the threshold of her career, she is faced with a new set of setbacks. Swallowing the so-called social values, with almost complete disregard to her career progression, sometimes she is pressurized to get married at an age when she cannot afford other priorities. No matter how much women have progressed, the patriarchal mind-set of this part of the world still looks at a woman of marriageable age as a commodity that needs to be tied down, rather than as an individual with her own passion and interests.

Perhaps the most difficult juncture in the life of a working woman is in her 30s when she faces the conflict between motherhood and career progression. This is the time when her career reaches a point of maturity and she has her eyes set for a career progression or taking a bigger role. She is ready to embark on new challenges in her career, ready to embrace new possibilities. However, many social barriers that cross her path, often blur her focus.

Conservative and inherently misogynist sentiments of the South-Asian society dictates mothers be the sole caregiver. If a child is sick, the mother is expected to drop everything, even her professional responsibilities, and tend to her ailing child. If a mother ever makes the rather difficult decision of compromising her motherly duties in favour of her professional obligations, she is tagged as an irresponsible mother. But, unfortunately, men are hardly questioned when they are not there for their children for day to day support. Fathers are expected to be only involved in the event of a major crisis simply because they are the men. Women have been programmed to sacrifice and even a slight deviation leads her to experience the feelings of guilt. Career progression for women at their 30s comes at a heavy cost.

It’s really difficult for a working mother to balance between work and life and put extra efforts for pursuing a career. While juggling between career and motherhood, often she is unable to devote time for enhancing her performance or self-development. As a result, her professional prospects are compromised and she lags in the race ahead. The 30s are a particularly crucial time when women may need to make a tough decision of whether they want to be a hardcore career-oriented person or a family-oriented person.

Maintaining a perfect work-life balance remains a myth. The scale always tips more towards one end.

If a woman decides to choose her profession over her family, she will not only require strength of character, but also the society’s support at large. Society needs to understand that ambitious women are not bad women but human beings with passion. They must learn to empathize with them and not treat them as an entity whose only duty is to give. Social paradigms and infrastructures need to be established that can help women raise a child and maintain their familial obligation without her career taking a hit. Families and peers need to extend their support to help these women’s career progression, minimising their struggle. Community-based and affordable child care centres need to be established, accessible to women of all sects. This will not only ensure that the children are taken well care of in a homely environment, but also lead to income opportunities for some other women with an enterprising spirit. Employers need to offer flexible working hours for mothers and ensure a more inclusive and conducive working environment for women.  The state needs to set up a policy environment conducive for making such transformative changes that will help women soar.