Women have long been the chief financial officers of their homes. They have been the domestic engineers. They have been home economists. However, in the corporate sector, this is far from true. At 22 per cent, Pakistan exhibits one of the lowest rates of female labour force participation across South Asia.

Factors such as inadequate education, limited access to safe transportation, prevailing social norms, and substantial household duties collectively hinder women from both initially entering and subsequently remaining within the formal workforce.

But there has been a slight increase in women’s participation in paid employment, rising from 19pc to 20.53pc, along with a rise in the proportion of women holding managerial positions. The dynamics are changing as many play a pivotal role in leading positions to foster diversity of thought and perspective within businesses, driving innovation and creative problem-solving.

This trend is reflected in the average growth rate of approximately 18pc among the top five companies, as indicated by the ‘Women Empowerment Award Survey’ compiled by ECOVIS FAMCO Associates in collaboration with the Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce & Industry — Pakistan.

Challenging the norms

Women, particularly those who find themselves in male-dominated spaces and professions, are expected to abide by a set of rules and work conditions that were never made for them to thrive in.

‘An inaccessible workplace and the lack of flexibility to manage work, home and caregiving are key reasons why females leave the workplace’

Talking about the reasons, Mehvish Waliany, Chief Operating Officer of Alkaram Studio, says, “This is possibly why we witness so many of them drop out of the workforce. Those who do reach the penultimate ranks in leadership are held back as they don’t have anyone championing to give them a spot in the leadership ranks. Many women are not culturally or socially equipped to survive challenges at the workplace, as the employers often lack empathy around women’s constraints.”

While economic needs dominate the list of considerations for women to join the workforce, reasons that retain them are very different. “Safety and inaccessible workplace, the flexibility to manage work, home and caregiving, are key reasons among others. Employers that recognise the importance and value of having a female perspective in their product and service offerings invest in these to achieve more productive participation from women in the workforce.”

Diverse perspectives

Women’s leadership skills prioritise collaboration and inclusivity, fostering a more cohesive and dynamic work environment. Organisations with gender-diverse leadership teams tend to outperform their counterparts, demonstrating the tangible economic benefits of women’s participation in decision-making roles.

As women leaders are known for their strong communication skills and emotional intelligence, essential for effective team management and conflict resolution, it is important to advocate for policies and structural frameworks that promote work-life balance and gender equality so that they can contribute to a more sustainable and equitable business ecosystem.

Their presence in leadership positions serves as a powerful reminder of progress towards gender parity, inspiring future generations of women to aspire to reach their full potential in all facets of society.

Mehreen Ahmed, Group Head Retail Banking, Bank Alfalah Ltd, has become a leader in the realm of business and finance, domains traditionally dominated by men. Despite encountering formidable obstacles, she has cemented the fact that if organisations invest in and enable women’s talent and business acumen, they can navigate through cultural barriers, challenge the status quo and carve out a niche for themselves in their respective industries.

“Having women in leadership positions significantly impacts organisations and decision-making processes. The presence of women in positions of authority or influence often yields positive outcomes and results. Women in leadership roles contribute diverse perspectives, unique skills, and varied experiences. This diversity fosters a more holistic and inclusive approach to problem-solving and strategic planning,” she elaborates.

Inspiration for aspiring women

Despite prevailing taboos, the ascent to leadership positions is not merely a testament to individual prowess but also a beacon of inspiration for aspiring women entering the workforce. Through strategic investments in mentorship programmes and initiatives to foster skill development, the business sector has realised the importance of creating pathways for the next generation of female leaders to thrive.

By championing financial literacy, strategy planning, and entrepreneurship among women, they are breaking the shackles of conventional career trajectories, propelling them from the confines of intern cubicles to the esteemed realms of the C-suite.

Aligned with the theme of International Women’s Day, “Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress,” Pouru Sidhwa, Chief Human Resources Officer, Easypaisa, underscores the imperative of supporting and empowering women, recognising that their triumphs herald not only personal success but also a collective stride towards gender equality and economic prosperity.

Ms Sidhwa says that the financial services industry has traditionally been male-dominated, and she often found herself as the only woman in meetings. “My diverse experience across banking, risk management, and human resources equipped me to bring unique perspectives, take on new challenges, including successful stints turning around struggling business units, and serve as a role model for young women in fintech.

“I have launched leadership programmes specifically for high-potential females to give candid advice and encouragement. With new hiring goals, mentorship initiatives, and policies like extended maternity leave to support working mothers, I have managed to retain high-value workforce.”

The writer is the Head of Content at a communications agency.

sara.amj@hotmail.co.uk

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 4th, 2024

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