Women at Work: Rachel Heath on Female Labor Force Participation in Bangladesh

In honor of International Women’s Day, CEGA Affiliate Rachel Heath discusses her work on female labor force participation in Bangladesh. Heath is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Over the past two decades, many developing countries have seen a steady increase in the number of women participating in the labor force. Unsurprisingly, the potential to earn an income appears to have important consequences for women in terms of their education, decisions about marriage, household bargaining power, and the investments they make in their children.

A striking example of this phenomenon is the garment industry in Bangladesh, which I’ve been studying for the past 10 years.

Credit: Solidarity Center (2015)

Since its inception in the early 80’s, employment in the garment industry has grown at a rate of 17% per year. Today, roughly 80% of the 4 million people employed in the sector are women. Meanwhile, we have seen large increases in girl’s education in Bangladesh — girls enrollment went from roughly half the rate of boys’ enrollment in 1970 to slightly higher than boys’ since 2000. The average age of marriage and childbearing among women has gone up as well.

Mushfiq Mobarak and I wanted to understand how these trends were related, so we did a study.

In 2009, we surveyed households in 44 villages just outside Dhaka that were within commuting distance of garment factories, and 16 control villages that were not. We asked household heads about the schooling, marriage, and fertility decisions of all of their sons and daughters (even those that had moved elsewhere) and village leaders about the timing of arrival of garment factories. These data allowed us to estimate how having access to a garment sector job affected life outcomes for males and females by comparing siblings who made education, marriage, and childbearing decisions before the arrival of garment factories to siblings who made these decisions after a garment factory had opened.

Our findings were stark: girls who lived near factories ended up with 1.5 more years of education than their brothers. The arrival of a garment factory further led to a 28 percent decrease in the probability that an unmarried girl would get married in a given year, and a 29 percent decrease in the probability that a girl would have her first birth.

Credit: ILO in Asia and the Pacific

Unfortunately, the garment industry has not been unambiguously good for women. Hours are long and working conditions are difficult — both in the extreme — resulting in events like the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza in 2013. My colleagues Laura Boudreau at Berkeley-Haas and Tyler McCormick at the University of Washington and I are currently exploring how working conditions, information about factories provided to migrants, and committees that advocate for better treatment of workers, also affect outcomes for women. This work seeks to inform policy interventions that allow workers to benefit from these jobs without sacrificing their health or safety.

Similar effects of job access have been documented throughout the world. In 2014, Anitha Sivansankaran found that textile factories in India lead to later marriage and a greater probability that a woman chose her own husband. Call center jobs have also improved outcomes for women. Robert Jensen (2012) found that after three years of recruiting services, women in India ages 15 and 21 at the baseline were 5 to 6 percentage points less likely to be married or have had their first child. Knowledge of these job opportunities also changed aspirations: women also reported greater desire to continue working after marriage and children.

A job opportunity also raises women’s bargaining power in the household. Models suggest that a woman’s “outside option” — the payoff she would get if she left her marriage — is an important determinant of her bargaining power within the marriage. This is true even in situations where it is relatively rare for a woman to leave a marriage. Indeed, Qian (2008) finds that tea-growing areas in China — which reward women’s fine motor skills — feature higher survival rates for female children. While Majlesi (2016) points out that merely the option to work increases women’s bargaining power, working itself seems to give women an additional boost. Atkin (2009) finds that women in Mexico who worked in maquiladoras have healthier children, and Anderson and Eswaran (2009) find that women in Bangladesh prompted to work by economic hardship increase their bargaining power.

As with the garment industry, the worldwide picture of working women is not entirely rosy. Men may react to their wives’ newfound empowerment with violence (Krishan et al 2010; Luke and Munshi 2011); women with low education or who were married very young appear to be at particularly high risk of this (Heath 2014). Other research has pointed out that in areas in which strong social norms dictate that women do most of the housework, working outside the home decreases women’s leisure time considerably (Skoufias 1993). This is still an open area of research, which seeks to help inform complementary policies designed to maximize the potential of job opportunities to improve the lives of women worldwide.


Anderson, Siwan, and Mukesh Eswaran. “What Determines Female Autonomy? Evidence from Bangladesh.” Journal of Development Economics90, no. 2 (2009): 179–191.

Atkin, David. “Working for the future: Female factory work and child health in Mexico.” Unpublished Manuscript, Yale University (2009).

Heath, Rachel. “Women’s access to labor market opportunities, control of household resources, and domestic violence: Evidence from Bangladesh.” World Development 57 (2014): 32

Heath, Rachel and Seema Jayachandran. “The Causes and Consequences of Increased Female Education and Labor Force Participation in Developing Countries” (prepared for inclusion in the Oxford Handbook on the Economics of Women, ed. Susan L. Averett, Laura M. Argys and Saul D. Hoffman. New York: Oxford University Press. Forthcoming, 2018)

Heath, Rachel, and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak. “Manufacturing Growth and the Lives of Bangladeshi Women.” Journal of Development Economics 115 (2015): 1–15.

Jensen, Robert. “Do Labor Market Opportunities Affect Young Women’s Work and Family Decisions? Experimental Evidence from India.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 127 (no.2) (2012): 753–792.

Krishnan, Suneeta, Corinne H. Rocca, Alan E. Hubbard, Kalyani Subbiah, Jeffrey Edmeades, and Nancy S. Padian. “Do Changes in Spousal Employment Status Lead to Domestic Violence? Insights from a Prospective Study in Bangalore, India.” Social Science and Medicine 70, no. 1 (2010): 136–143.

Luke, Nancy, and Kaivan Munshi. “Women as Agents of Change: Female Income and Mobility in India.” Journal of Development Economics 94, no. 1 (2011): 1–17.

Majlesi, Kaveh. “Labor Market Opportunities and Women’s Decision Making Power within Households.” Journal of Development Economics 119 (2016): 34–47.

Qian, Nancy. “Missing women and the price of tea in China: The effect of sex-specific earnings on sex imbalance.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 123, no. 3 (2008): 1251–1285.

Sivasankaran, Anitha. “Essays on gender, intra-household allocation and development.” PhD dissertation, 2014.

Skoufias, Emmanuel. “Labor market opportunities and intrafamily time allocation in rural households in South Asia.” Journal of Development Economics 40, no. 2 (1993): 277–310.