A Pakistani woman’s workplace dilemma

Many working Pakistani women feel discriminated against despite the increased participation of women in the workforce.
Published March 7, 2017

Additional reporting by Zainab Shumail in Islamabad and Sadia Qasim Shah in Peshawar

Karachi-based civil litigant Naz* is on the way to starting a family. But the dread of sharing this news with colleagues at her respective law firm is giving the pregnant 30-year-old sleepless nights.

“I haven’t told them that I am pregnant because I’m anxious my [expected salary] raise won’t come through if my boss finds out,” she says, requesting anonymity out of concern for her job.

“I also worry that my pregnancy announcement will influence the kind of work assigned to me... that I will be given ‘less important’ cases,” she adds.

Although she is confident that her education at top UK law schools coupled with seven years of experience make her a good candidate for a raise, the young lawyer’s fears about being side-lined are not unfounded.

Conversations with dozens of women for this report turn the spotlight on a lazy approach in Pakistan which perpetuates discrimination against women in the workplace — especially when it comes to small and medium sized organisations.

“This culture is not limited to [working mothers], it also targets married females,” says one respondent, Gill, in response to a survey on workplace discrimination conducted by Dawn.com.

“I have been married for two years and have no kids. Yet everywhere I apply, the interviewers are like, 'What if you are to have a baby? We cannot afford to keep you on in such a case. You would only be able to work for like two trimesters'. It is unfortunate that I cannot have a career just because I might have a baby [at some point].”

Mahum Siddik, an employee at a large bank in Karachi, shares a similar story. “When I was getting married I had been with the bank for five years and everyone kept asking if I would keep working — everyone, multiple times. They just would not believe me no matter what I said. A man will never be asked this question when he is getting married,” she says, adding that the questions did not stop for the first year of her marriage even though she continued working.

Undoubtedly, in the pecking order of discrimination against women at the workplace, expectant mothers have it the worst. A respondent who identifies herself as AA says three of her colleagues had to leave their private sector jobs in the medical field as they needed at least three months of maternity leave and their workplace allowed just one month of unpaid leave.

“Since I am expecting now, I have decided to look for another organisation which offers paid maternity leave for three months,” she adds.

Attitudes in Pakistan have seemingly not shifted much in the last 25 years even as more women enter the urban and rural workspace.

Back in 1990, then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto found herself in a fix as she contemplated making her second pregnancy public while she was in office.

In the book Daughter of the East the late former prime minister shared, “Once the political opposition learned I was pregnant, all hell broke loose. They called on the president and the military to overthrow me. They argued that Pakistan's government rules did not provide for a pregnant prime minister going on maternity leave.”

As the opposition drew up a plan of strikes to “pressure the president into sacking the government”, Bhutto had plans of her own. With the permission of her doctor, she decided to have a caesarean delivery “on the eve of the call for strike action.”

Bhutto rejected the opposition’s demands, highlighting that maternity laws for working women exist.

Bhutto went on to say, “I didn't want to encourage any stereotypes that pregnancy interferes with performance. So, despite my condition, I worked just as hard, and probably a lot harder, than a male prime minister would have done.”

Maternity leave policies exist — if you’re lucky

Illustrations by Zahra Abdus Samad
Illustrations by Zahra Abdus Samad

Although Article 37 (e) of the Constitution of Pakistan directs the state to ensure “maternity benefits for women in employment…” many organisations get away with violating rules surrounding maternity leave.

According to The West Pakistan Maternity Benefit Ordinance, 1958, women working at an establishment for four months or above are entitled to 12 weeks paid maternity leave. Under Pakistani law, the company is liable for providing paid leave for six weeks prior to and six week after the delivery.

Yet, with limited checks and balances, implementation remains sporadic across workplaces in the country. A basic three month paid maternity leave is a luxury.

“[Employers] are not taken into account for violating the law. The beneficiaries of this law are women who are some of the most vulnerable workers, so if their rights are taken away they are in less of a position to go and [challenge] somebody stronger and more powerful,” says Sara Malkani, a Karachi-based lawyer working on reproductive healthcare.

Lawyer Sara Malkani on reproductive healthcare, maternity leave and the glass ceiling in the legal profession. — Video by Kamran Nafees

The outdated penalties for the contravention of the law are in desperate need of an upgrade and reflect the casual approach of the state towards the law. A 2010 report by the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan noted that the, “…sums mentioned as fine i.e. rupees 500[clause 11] is too inadequate to deter an offender from committing a break of the law.”

“Most of these laws were drafted in times when it was hard to imagine women working in the public sphere,” Dr Javaid Iqbal Gill, a representative of the Labour Department, noted at an event in 2014.

The Maternity Benefit Ordinance also states that it is unlawful for an employer to dismiss a woman during her pregnancy period.

But despite the legislation, many workplaces do not have a concrete policy at all and appear to be either violating the law altogether or making calls on an individual basis.

This is also true for women journalists, who dedicate their lives to giving voice to the rights of others but often find their own workplaces unsupportive. “The media has really failed working mothers,” says DM, a former staffer at a leading English language daily.

“I got two months off with half pay. That’s ridiculous!”

“I tried [to ask management to change] the policy, but to no avail,” she adds.

“Basically you have to give up your career because they [employers] are not willing to accommodate working mothers in any way.”

Despite blatant violations of the law, women don’t take employers to court. “Going to court can be very time-consuming and expensive; the procedures for complaint are not set out very clearly under the law either. So there are a lot of gaps in terms of the legal protection that are offered,” lawyer Malkani tells Dawn.com.

Several mothers also feel that they had to ‘prove their worth’ to employers during a pregnancy.

Shockingly, Amara’s* pregnancy announcement was met with unsolicited advice from her boss: get the baby aborted if you have any doubts.

In this environment, Amara continued to work 12 hours a day till the 40th week of her pregnancy. At home she was told, ‘You just have to sit at work, what’s the big deal?’ while at work she was asked, ‘What good will sitting at home do you?’

Amara powered through, and is now a manager at her firm after two promotions. She feels her employers were hawkishly observing her throughout her pregnancy, so she had to go the extra mile to show commitment to the job.

Another woman employed as a project engineer in Karachi for a steel group recalls how harshly she was treated when she broke the news of her pregnancy at her former workplace back in 2013.

Sara* submitted a maternity leave application, confident of a favourable response as she had been employed there for five years. The response? A letter of termination.

“I was the first-ever woman employee to get [pregnant] and apparently [they had no maternity leave policy].”

Progressive workplaces

Telenor Pakistan's day-care centre at their Islamabad head office. — Courtesy Telenor Pakistan
Telenor Pakistan's day-care centre at their Islamabad head office. — Courtesy Telenor Pakistan

Although several companies have internalised lax approaches towards maternity policies, a handful of large companies operating in Pakistan have managed to successfully enforce rules that make it possible for women to thrive professionally.

Two years ago, when Faiza Immad walked in for her interview – visibly pregnant – at Telenor Pakistan, she had considerable doubts on her prospects of securing the job.

“Usually employers discourage bringing on board a candidate when they discover that she is expecting and is therefore set to take a break soon,” she tells Dawn.com. But Immad, who is now working for HR at Telenor, got the job.

Telenor, an international company operating in markets across Europe and Asia, says its maternity leave policy has undergone changes over the years and since September 2015, the telecommunications company has a policy which allows female employees globally to take salaried leave for six months during the maternity period.

Another multinational to have successfully incorporated a six-month leave policy is Unilever. “I worked till the last week of my pregnancy as I was given support and enjoyed the work I was doing. Returning to work post maternity leave was exciting and I had a seamless transition,” says employee Sarah Karamatullah.

Textile brand Khaadi, too, strives to maintain an environment that is conducive to working mothers. Khaadi provides 12 weeks paid maternity leave to employees. The company’s head office employs about 275 staffers, 30% of whom are women.

“I had a very difficult pregnancy and was required to be on bed rest relatively early on. I stopped working at Khaadi in January 2015 and re-joined in September the same year,” recalls Sharmin Raza, head of HR at the design firm.

For these companies enforcing the policy means systems are in place to share the workload. “I was assured by the CEO that my position… would not be filled and my work was taken up by my colleagues.”

How the teams manage in the absence of the employee depends on their position, Raza adds. “At entry-level positions, a supervisor assumes the responsibility. At higher levels, it is often divided among peers,” she says.

Similarly, many larger NGOs also give three-months paid leave, “as they are externally and internally audited for their gender policies,” says Saima Munir, a programme manager with Aurat Foundation.

But what happens at smaller companies?

Illustration by Zahra Abdus Samad
Illustration by Zahra Abdus Samad

Obaid Ashraf, an employee at a plastic packaging company stresses that having the “right person for the right job,” is critical at small or medium-sized companies. “Hiring, especially in sales, requires a training period…Often times, this is a process that requires a significant amount of time and resource invested into each employee and they become part of a very tightly fit puzzle,” he says.

“If after this investment, an employee were to become unavailable for an extended period or, in the worst-case scenario, leave, the company suffers in very real terms due to that loss of productivity,” he adds.

“Employers are often hiring with this very fact in mind and are often apprehensive of hiring someone that might not be able to fully commit,” he says adding that, “This situation exists whether the employee in question is male or female.”

“The unfortunate side effect of biology, as well as our country's culture, is the fact that women suffer the most at the hands of this apprehension. While women deserve equal treatment in the work place, the sad reality is that often times a SME needs to take into account a woman's marital status as part of the opportunity cost of hiring her,” he says.

Maternity leave in the government sector

While it is worth noting that the government sector has a very small percentage of women in civil service (almost 10 per cent according to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2015-2016), they follow the state approved maternity leave policy.

The Civil Servants Rules state that maternity leave is admissible to a female civil servant on “full pay for upto three months”. The rules further state that such leave may not be granted for more than three times in the career of a civil servant — except, curiously, ones working in “a vacation department”.

Since government jobs also offer health benefits, unlike many of their private counterparts, the employers also foot hospital bills.

“The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has a policy of giving three month paid leave to women employees,” Robina Riaz, deputy-secretary women development, tells Dawn.com.

Support post childbirth

A Khaadi employee with a coworker's baby. — Courtesy Khaadi
A Khaadi employee with a coworker's baby. — Courtesy Khaadi

Masooma*, a lawyer who worked at Suparco shares a rare pleasant experience of a supportive employer. “Suparco had a lovely day-care centre for kids. They even ran a shuttle during tea break and lunch times from the main building to the centre, so mothers could visit their kids. There was a dad who used to drop off his toddler in the mornings, since his wife was in med school,” she says.

However, she maintains the situation would have been starkly different at a law firm.

“I can't imagine being able to work in a law firm while having a kid. I don't know many female lawyers who do (if any), unless they work in a family firm. Or they switch to corporate.”

She is right; most companies do not have day-care services for new-borns and do not allow flexible work hours for mothers.

According to our survey 66.4% of respondents find their offices unsupportive of staffers bringing their children to work. 77.3% said that their offices do not offer day-care facilities.

Yet larger companies are making room for more progressive policies.

“Upon my return, an office was converted into a nursing room for me while our new nursery was under construction and the support I received to balance life as a new working mother was par none,” Raza from Khaadi tells Dawn.com.

“All mothers are allowed to bring their children to work [irrespective of their position], in fact, there is a nursery for children where mothers can leave their children with their nannies and toys,” she says.

Although there is no age limit on the children employees bring to the office, she points out that any employee bringing in a child must have their own nanny to care for the child.

Telenor too provides additional support to employees once the baby is born. Additional facilities include work-from-home arrangements and flexible working hours along with in-house day-care facilities. These day-cares act as children’s abodes until they attain school-going age.

Unilever also provides on-site day-care. The day-care centre allows parents to bring their new-borns and young children (of up to six years) to work. It comes equipped with cameras so parents can monitor their children on laptops through specialised software accessible only to them.

In addition to the Karachi head office, Unilever has also recently started a day-care at its Rahim Yar Khan factory, open to the children of both management and non-management staff.

The impact of these facilities extends beyond just the employee and can leave a lasting impact on the entire family unit.

Ammad Danish, manager consumer and customer development at Unilever, shares that the facility has not only helped his son engage in a healthy development environment, but has also helped put his wife – who is not a Unilever employee – at ease. “The ripple effect of this support goes beyond Unilever.”

“It’s a question of changing workplace culture and changing mindsets,” says lawyer Malkani.

“I think people need to get more comfortable [with] the idea that women are in the workforce, and they are here stay. As that becomes more accepted, employers will have to start finding ways to accommodate pregnant women, or women with children in the workplace.”

*Name has been changed to protect identity