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Employing women

Published Jun 18, 2017 07:23am

IN my first job outside Pakistan, new hires would undergo a series of sensitivity trainings. The goal was to promote a diverse and tolerant workplace by explaining what constitutes discrimination against minorities and clearly outlining the limits of acceptable behaviour in the workplace. In Pakistan, where workplace harassment is common, such trainings are unheard of. At no stage are we taught about diversity, empathy and inclusion in any meaningful way.

It is no surprise then that, across industries and sectors, women are few and far between. Women in managerial positions stand out, with success stories making headlines. Female litigators are discouraged from pursuing a line of work that is heavily male-dominated, and female politicians are often those who are beneficiaries of a system of dynastic politics. Women are usually welcomed in ‘pink-collar’ jobs, which tend to be underpaid and non-contractual.

Organisations where one would expect higher female representation in the upper echelons, such as the top retailers in women’s fashion, are no better. At a conference on IT for retailers that was held recently in Lahore, the women in the room could be counted on one hand. The male participants analysed the behavioural patterns exhibited by their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters when they shop, with women conspicuously absent from the discussion.

Economic empowerment is a distant dream.

The most commonly cited reasons for the abysmal gender ratios in our workplaces are: (1) there aren’t enough women applying for jobs and (2) women leave the job when they get married/when they have children. Another common refrain is that, to ensure adequate female representation, employers would have to lower their hiring standards: an absurd suggestion in a country where girls outperform boys in academics. These are easy alibis to absolve ourselves of the responsibility to ensure diverse and tolerant workplaces.

Yes, there is a supply issue: women are not encouraged to pursue careers the way men are. Even those women who are given the right opportunities struggle every step of the way: juggling responsibilities at work while shouldering the burden of housework, child-rearing and elderly care; dealing with a society that labels working mothers as neglectful; and surviving in workplaces that are tailor-made for men.

It is also true that organisations face a high turnover of female employees, but not necessarily because women willingly choose to resign after starting a family. Inhospitable work environments are a significant factor behind the decision to forego a career.

Few workplaces here provide daycare centres, lactation rooms, adequate maternity and paternity leaves or flexible timings. I once heard a hiring manager of a local organisation say he would not hire women as they cannot stay at the office late due to family pressures. Women work in offices where a ‘boys club’ culture is entrenched, and sexism and sexual harassment are routine. Solving these issues is key to female employee retention.

Men who continue to blame the skewed gender ratio on a dearth of hire-able women also need to engage in self-reflection. What are their expectations from their wives and daughters? A friend told me about how her colleague, who insisted he cannot hire women due to lack of female job applicants, also went on to assert that his wife must stay at home to look after the children. He charitably stated that she may pursue a ‘hobby’, but a career was out of the question.

To be sure, this disdain for the working woman is a luxury for the upper classes who do not require dual incomes to survive. For those women who work out of necessity, economic empowerment is a distant dream, men continue to be the primary decision-makers of the household. Working conditions are even worse; women are involved in unregulated work and have little to no legal protection.

When the men to whom we appeal to hire women and create women-friendly spaces don’t live by those ideals in their own homes, there is little hope. Legislation must be enforced to counter workplace harassment; affirmative action and mandatory benefits such as paid maternity and paternity leaves and daycare centres are needed. Our schools also need to do a better job of training children with regard to diversity and tolerance and our media must stop juxtaposing the bad working woman with the docile housewife.

As for those women who are unable to or prefer not to work outside the home, housework, child-rearing and caring for the elderly do indeed constitute a fulltime job. Adequate compensation and legal status as employees for stay-at-home mothers is too futuristic for our society, but we can at least learn to value a woman’s physical and emotional labour in the home.

The writer is an executive at Microsoft Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2017