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Setting our women up for success

February 18, 2019


THE one thing most business leaders seem to unanimously agree upon is that having women in the workplace makes for a successful business model. Gender equality and women empowerment after all is goal five of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and with a voluntary review presentation looming over the country in 2019, every contribution counts.

And yet, for women in Pakistan the struggle for career growth continues unabated. In 2017 for example, the Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry (OICCI) — set apart from local companies as its members follow global trends set by their head offices — found that across member companies, female representation amounted to only two per cent in senior management positions, 16pc in senior executive positions and 36pc in managerial positions. This year, claims OICCI Secretary General M. Abdul Aleem, “there was a slight improvement.”

But with a new leader at the helm, it seems the Chamber may now push to work rather more stringently towards equal participation of women in the workplace. “I want this to be my legacy,” says the new OICCI President Shazia Syed.

She believes that change comes from the top. Giving the example of the law that states that women must be part of the board of directors of a listed company, Ms Syed says, “First it was said we don’t have women and now suddenly every board has them. Now everyone’s looking desperately for women.”

‘She’s the first woman, she will not fail; because if she fails, we close the doors’

Therefore, she believes that the solution lies partly in government intervention and effective policy implementation. Emphasising a ‘white paper’ that the Chamber is currently working on, Mr Aleem also feels that to enact actual change the law will have to come into play: “You will have to change the law, and so we’re just waiting for the right opportunity to present our recommendations to the government.”

But while the OICCI waits for the ‘right opportunity,’ it is pertinent to mention that Pakistan is one of the few countries where the SDGs have already been incorporated into the national agenda.

A report on “Where Pakistan Stands on Implementation of the SDGs 2018” by AwazCDS-Pakistan that ‘enjoys a special consultative status with UN-ECOSOC’ highlights: “The National Economic Council under the aegis of the Planning Commission of Pakistan has set the National SDGs Framework … The provincial and local governments have yet to ponder upon the requirements of setting their priorities.”

Admittedly, a disconnect exists between stakeholders, where all seem to be working in silos, as the report goes on to lament: “None of the member of Chamber of Commerce and Industries from Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi could recognise the SDGs and even any engagement with SDG units or government/NGOs in relation with SDGs … There is great level of willingness in the private sector to lend a hand for the common good.”

Speaking on behalf of Unilever, Senior Manager Corporate Affairs Hussain Talib mentioned that the company had been approached by the provincial SDG cells to participate in a Voluntary National Review (VNR) meeting. “That’s the first time I found out about the provincial cells. Before that we were just talking to the Planning Commission (in) Islamabad. That’s the only interaction we’ve had so far. And they just wanted to know what we’ve been doing, I think for the report. There was no follow-up after that,” he said.

DISMISSING the gender pay gap as an issue in member companies, Ms Syed stated: “I don’t know about local companies but for OICCI members the problem is that women don’t get opportunities. When I look at local companies they have really upped their game. They’re mirroring multinationals so their systems have been made and policies established. So there’s very little room now to get away with a gender pay gap (equal pay for equal work). If you hire management trainees, they all have one salary so there’s transparency.”

In April 2017, however, the UK government introduced new gender pay gap transparency regulations. According to an article in The Guardian, “The data collected showed that men are paid more than women in 7,795 out of 10,016 companies and public bodies in Britain, based on the median hourly pay … While the figures do not reflect equal pay for equal work, they do raise questions about structural inequalities in the workforce and may hold the answer to closing the gap.”

The reason women are left behind in the Pakistani workforce though, according to Ms Syed, was the personal and societal perceptions they face. The challenge lies in ‘how’ to change these perceptions, not ‘why’.

“One of the key factors is the role men can play. We have to be a bit unapologetic about hiring women. If you give people a target they find a way of getting it done.

“A company’s CEO must be visibly seen taking the lead. A non-OICCI member company CEO I spoke to once said, ‘Daycares are too big a responsibility. We don’t want to be involved in such matters.’ Such perspectives will only change when the government says all organisations with a particular female ratio must have a daycare. It has to be part of your cost system.

“We must set our women up for success. Because she’s the first woman she will not fail, because if she fails we close the doors.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 18th, 2019