In the last few years, Pakistan has done quite a brilliant job – especially for a developing country – of making a mark on the international stage. We have seen Pakistanis garner a Nobel Prize, an Emmy award, an Asian Games Gold Medal in 2014, and even an Academy Award in 2013.
What makes these accomplishments even more remarkable is that it is Pakistani women who have won each of these accolades.
Still, this question is often raised:
Is the recent success of a few talented women on the global stage of any relevance to the lives of millions of Pakistani women going to school, college and work every day?
The answer should be an unequivocal yes.
We could choose to view these international successes as isolated cases of individual brilliance, or we could choose to see it as the tip of an iceberg which represents a deeper talent pool.
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Young women have been outperforming their male colleagues in educational achievement for many years now. In creative fields such as advertising, marketing, textiles, retail, fashion, technology and communications; Pakistani women have demonstrated amazing accomplishments nationally and internationally with aplomb.
The knowledge economy welcomes women
Women in Pakistan should know that achievements are not just a distant dream anymore.
As we move to an economy where intellect more than physical labour holds the key to economic achievement, the playing field is set for millions of educated Pakistani women to prove themselves at the workplace.
Businesses covet talent no matter what colour, gender, or religious background it comes in. In the current knowledge economy era, the currency of success is skills and education. Increasing participation of educated women in the workforce will not be for reasons of altruism but for the more pragmatic reasons of profit. Pakistani women are talented and can more than deliver. After all, ingenuity and initiative is not the exclusive domain of men.
For organisations, finding talent that has the skill and motivation to deliver above par performances is hard to find. But with greater participation of women in the workforce, the likelihood of unearthing such rare talent doubles for organisations.
Removing barriers for women in the workforce
So what can be done to improve the participation and engagement of educated women in the workforce?
The emerging “mind-over-muscle” economy places the onus on Pakistani organisations to make the workplace more conducive for women. Women are unable to achieve unfettered career success due to three major barriers which are prevalent not only in Pakistan but all over the world:
1. Unequal Pay: A large number of employers still seem to be of the mind that it is okay to pay women less than men. How can we expect talented women to find encouragement in the workforce if they are paid less than their male peers throughout their careers?
2. Hostile Environment: Employers are responsible for creating an environment, which is in keeping with the culture of decency and mutual respect as practiced in the society.
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Without a work environment that makes it a priority to protect women from harassment, bullying, and sexism; women who are smart enough to work there but can afford to opt out will obviously opt out. And if a board, or a business owner, or the government, or the legislature in Pakistan is too timid to address the issue of keeping work environments women-friendly, maybe a simple website devoted to naming and shaming offenders can be an effective way to curb inappropriate behavior.
3. Scheduling inflexibility
To have an employee sitting right under your nose does not always guarantee productivity just as watching a child take an exam does not ensure their passing it.
In today’s knowledge economy, it is now incredibly common for knowledge professionals likes analysts, salespeople, middle managers, researchers, transcribers, senior executives, and many others around the world to work from home using a broadband connection to the Internet and a mobile phone.
Flexible work hours, opportunities to work from home, job-sharing, and part-time jobs (when appropriate), are options that organisations could evaluate to make sure they retain talented moms even during their child-rearing years.
Reconciling practices with reality
In a knowledge economy, virtual presence trumps physical presence in many instances. Which is more valuable: Sending a male doctor to an urban slum where a female patient is too shy to speak to him or having that female patient describe her symptoms over the phone to a lady doctor instead?
If being virtually present suffices for a particular position, an organisation does not need to have a responsible professional commute back and forth in traffic each day for work that could just as well be performed from home.
For women to succeed in Pakistan’s workplace, employers have to be more accommodating in terms of work-life balance.
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The prevalent mindset is that less jobs for women means more jobs for men (who are the eventual household breadwinners anyway). This flawed perception must change.
The shortsightedness of such a view assumes that an economy is a fixed-size pie where “less-for-them-means-more-for-me” holds true. But that is not how economies really prosper. Exceptional knowledge workers are wealth creators – the more you have of those around, the bigger becomes the pie.
Building an on-ramp of opportunity for the have-nots
For a nation that is known in the international press for all sorts of unfortunate reasons like gender crimes, extremism and epidemic disease, the recent success of a handful of young women in the international arena presents a contrasting narrative.
The contrast in the narratives underscores a dichotomy of opportunities and ensuing success between the groups of Pakistani women who can access it and the groups who can't. The need in Pakistan is dire for building on-ramps to the highway of economic opportunity for women.
Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a virtuous cycle of greater economic participation by women will present them as leaders in their families, communities, and neighborhoods. That leadership will be critical in influencing attitudes within the larger society.
It is time for talented women to start expecting, asking, and organising more of what makes them stronger performers in today’s workplace. The era and age permits it. Enlightened professionals, entrepreneurs, and business leaders in Pakistan will support careers of women out of their own self-interest.
Having shown their mettle on the world stage, the time is ripe for our women to take the economic center-stage at home as well.