Uzma Zia

Despite experiencing some growth in the past three decades, female participation rates in Pakistan’s labour force lag behind regional averages. In the current LFS (2020-2021) female employment to population ratio is reported as 19.4 percent. Women constitute nearly 50 percent of the global population, and their overall contributions to economic activity fall significantly short of their potential. In Pakistan, women are predominantly engaged in skilled agriculture, craft, and trade as well as unskilled labour. However, notable variations exist in female labour force participation across different world regions where South Asia, in particular, presents a concerning scenario with the second-lowest rates of women’s employment participation after the Middle East and North Africa. Between 1990 and 2020, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan witnessed an increase in female labour force participation, but Pakistan’s rate remains notably below the regional levels and also reflected in the international trade market.

International trade has long been recognised as a catalyst for economic growth, providing a pathway for businesses to bloom and expand beyond borders. Firms engaged in global trade often experience increased profits and accelerated growth, gaining a competitive edge. However, a significant gender gap persists, with women entrepreneurs lagging behind their male counterparts while participating in international trading.

Insights from our recent survey identify the obstacles hindering women-led enterprises from venturing into the global market and propose policies to overcome these challenges. To gain insight, women exporters and female trainers were engaged, and the challenges they faced were extracted. Among the numerous challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in expanding their businesses globally, limited access to financial resources and time constraints emerged as recurring themes. An alarming percentage of 92 percent of females reported a lack of family support when they were starting their exporting journey. Networking hurdles were prevalent, with nearly all respondents citing difficulties in establishing connections, leading to sluggish business growth until suitable platforms were found.

The business environment (trade) in the country appeared uncompetitive for women as the issue unfolded. The issue of working capital presented a significant barrier, with almost 85 percent of women reporting challenges in securing funds to initiate exports. Marketing difficulties were a concern for 46 percent of respondents, resulting in products being ignored in a crowded market. The high cost of courier services posed an additional problem for 30 percent of women, impacting the competitiveness of their products. Some women entrepreneurs shared their experiences of expanding into markets such as the UAE, Turkey, and the USA but faced challenges of receiving small orders, lack of network presence in exporting countries, and expensive shipping, hindering their growth potential.

A notable 15 percent of respondents highlighted affordability issues when it came to costly displays, impacting their ability to showcase their products effectively. Other reported problems included the unavailability and high cost of raw materials, lengthy procedures for obtaining financing facilities, and the need to hire media personnel for effective social networking and selling in line with new online trends.

Female trainers, providing valuable insights into the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs, highlighted difficulties in navigating domestic customs procedures and foreign regulations. This points to a potential knowledge gap and low confidence that could be addressed through initiatives by export promotion agencies, women’s chambers of commerce, organizations imparting training through female trainers, and the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP). Shockingly, 100 percent of respondents indicated their issue of low confidence and slow social networking, underlining the need for targeted interventions to boost women’s confidence in navigating the complexities of international trade.

Approximately 75 percent of female trainers mentioned the lack of market access and branding as key issues faced by women entrepreneurs. Other reported problems comprised limited family support, unawareness of suitable business platforms, and lower social media platform utilisation. The overall sentiment conveyed by these findings is that women entrepreneurs exhibit a lower inclination towards international trade, resulting in a missed opportunity to harness the competitive advantages associated with global markets.

In conclusion, addressing the barriers faced by women entrepreneurs in international trade is not only for promoting gender equality but also a strategic footstep for encouraging women’s participation in trade and inclusive economic growth. Policymakers, export promotion agencies, and business support organizations must work collaboratively to develop targeted initiatives that empower women-led enterprises to overcome their challenges, unlocking their full potential in the global marketplace. This is the time for breaking down these barriers, making way for a more equitable and prosperous future for women entrepreneurs in the international market.

(The writer is a Senior Research Economist at Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Islamabad)