SOCIETY: LEVELLING THE PLAYING FIELD

Published June 16, 2024
Illustration by Shiza Amin
Illustration by Shiza Amin

In Pakistan, efforts are underway to increase female participation in the workforce, aiming to reach 45 percent by 2025. However, as of 2024, only a quarter of the workforce is female, and most of them work in rural-based agricultural occupations.

Women perform equally well as men in higher education, but the country’s economy will not reach its full potential unless women are given a level playing field. To achieve this, policies and programmes that lead to inclusive workplaces must be implemented. Additionally, it is essential to address cultural biases and gender stereotypes that hinder women’s ability to participate fully in the formal sector.

Data from the World Bank identifies that companies in Pakistan had an average of 3.3 percent females working in full-time roles in 2022, much lower than the percentage of female employees in other countries in South Asia. The three main reasons that have contributed to these low levels of workforce participation are gender norms, which require women to manage responsibilities at home, the lack of supporting infrastructure, and the uptake of gender policies by the private sector.

A closer look at the statistics by the National Commission on the Status of Women [NCSW] reveals only 14 to 16 percent of women occupy professional roles in manufacturing and services, and the numbers are even lower in healthcare and STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields. In contrast, women occupy 88 percent of the positions in the education sector.

Despite efforts to increase women’s participation in the workforce, Pakistan continues to fare poorly on gender parity in the workplace. The disparity becomes stark in professional roles, where women often have to sacrifice their careers for ‘flexible’ jobs to juggle dual roles at home and at the workplace. What can be done to break this cycle?

The disparity in women’s choice of occupations primarily points to the struggles in managing their roles in caregiving and domestic tasks. Consequently, many women perceive their careers as either expendable — to be foregone for personal responsibilities — or limited. They end up being nudged towards “women-friendly professions”, which are more flexible, thus creating significant gaps in STEM fields.

It’s important to understand that the challenges faced by women who work do not reflect their capabilities or dedication. The existing system can make women feel like they are failing both at their jobs and responsibilities at home. The fact that a significant majority of women opt for roles with more flexibility highlights the disparity in how private-sector roles are structured, underscoring the urgent need for systemic changes to support the needs of employees from varying backgrounds.

DUAL ROLE OF WOMEN

When you listen to working women, they often speak of the struggles faced by them in managing logistics and after-school care. This also extends to any employee with caregiving responsibilities, such as taking care of old-age parents and sick or disabled family members, which falls mainly on women as well.

This dual burden often leads women to seek alternative career paths for greater flexibility and better alignment with familial obligations. Teaching is particularly appealing, offering the opportunity to maintain employment even after marriage and children, but it is not the first career choice for many women. The profession’s main draw is how it aligns with children’s schedules, allowing women to be available to care for the children after school, while attending to their domestic duties.

Today, a mother’s dedication to her children still conflicts directly with the image of an ideal worker. Motherhood becomes the ‘maternal wall’ and affects job performance to the extent that women begin their careers with prying questions about their ability to balance their home and work lives during the interview process. This culture becomes a part of teams, which tend to sideline working mothers from projects or assume their lack of inclination to travel for work or sit late at the office.

Working mothers often face challenges when organising after-school care for their children and require accommodations to balance their responsibilities. In Pakistan, school hours typically end around 1:30pm, prompting parents to leave the office to pick up their children, an interruption that often requires a two-hour break in their schedules.

With one child, elderly family members, such as the children’s grandparents, may usually take up this responsibility. Still, it becomes increasingly more difficult with their advancing age, especially as the parents have a second or third child.

At this point, many women tend to quit their jobs. As the children grow older, women may try returning to their previous careers, but a long break can pose a host of additional biases against them due to their age. They may be under greater scrutiny from their new colleagues and managers, who could question their level of commitment or ability, when the returning mothers may already have to adjust to the work environment that would have transformed in terms of work ethics and technology.

Today, a mother’s dedication to her children still conflicts directly with the image of an ideal worker. Motherhood becomes the ‘maternal wall’ and affects job performance to the extent that women begin their careers with prying questions about their ability to balance their home and work lives during the interview process. This culture becomes a part of teams, which tend to sideline working mothers from projects or assume their lack of inclination to travel for work or sit late at the office.

STATE OF THE CORPORATE SECTOR

In data gathered by the Pakistan Business Council (PBC) in 2023, as part of its ‘Employer of Choice, Gender Diversity Awards’, more than 75 percent of companies identified the proportion of women working for them as low as six percent.

Pakistan’s infrastructural and cultural barriers, as well as economic instability, regularly threaten to weaken the business case for hiring women. Employers encounter additional expenses in accommodating female employees, such as establishing segregated facilities or ensuring safe transportation options, especially as small- or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), for whom the resources required to facilitate this transition are often beyond their means.

Conversely, companies often feel frustrated when female employees exit their organisations, despite efforts to allocate resources for their recruitment. However, simply bumping up the

numbers of women, without working on strategies to boost their productivity and well-being, as well as not offering them professional development opportunities, will not help companies become gender-conscious employers.

But each time a woman leaves can be seen as a reason to not hire more women, perpetuating further prejudice and discrimination. Data collected by the PBC also found that most of the surveyed companies do not have flexible

working arrangements, like shorter work weeks, emergency childcare leaves and remote work.

Considering the cultural expectations of the country’s women, companies must strategise on how to become attractive employers who help women balance their priorities early in their careers.

DEVELOPING GENDER-CONSCIOUS POLICIES

Gender quotas are determined through a role-mapping process to identify suitable places for women in an organisation, sometimes by making adjustments to jobs that traditionally lock women out.

Role mapping is a good way for companies to build talent pipelines, allocating a particular portion of the pipeline to women or ensuring that a role vacated by a woman is offered to another woman. Hence, it is crucial to eliminate gender biases in company leadership, to ensure women have equal career advancement opportunities.

To prepare women for their talent pipelines, companies can simultaneously offer training programmes tailored to them, to address the gaps in their education, vocational background and personal skills. A lack of support may contribute to the low number of women in executive leadership positions, emblematic of a global problem for women trying to become the decision-makers in their organisations.

Being trapped out of senior roles leads to another problem: the gender wage gap. Contrary to common belief, the wage gap does not always exist because women are paid less because of discriminatory company policies or practices. Nearly every company surveyed by the PBC claimed it was an equal-opportunity employer, with the same remuneration policies for women and men. Not only are women unable to occupy some of the highest-paying roles, but many companies do not track or report the wage gap, making it difficult to assess where the disparity arises.

Some local companies, aligning with global trends, employ focused policies to attract female talent, such as using gender-neutral language in job ads to encourage female candidates, sensitising their recruitment managers against discriminatory behaviour, and setting quotas for women for different positions and departments.

In data collected by the PBC, leading companies said they are prepared to go the extra mile to compensate working mothers for travel with their children and nannies or allow parents to bring their children to work in exceptional circumstances.

LEGISLATIVE AND OTHER INTERVENTIONS

Legislative policy is advancing to support working women by addressing barriers, albeit slowly. The 2010 Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act requires companies to allow employees to report workplace grievances without fear of retaliation. Furthermore, legislation has prompted most companies to provide paid maternity leave.

However, childcare support varies between companies, from daycare centres to allowances, due to a difference between legislations in between provinces. It warrants a mention that, while the policymaker has the responsibility for designing interventions for enhancing women’s opportunities, the corporate sector can engage the government to advocate for policies, which are able to cater to the systemic challenges for women, such as childcare and public transport.

While governments play a pivotal role in promoting gender-balanced workplaces, it’s essential to recognise the limitations of relying only on its interventions. The private sector needs to take the lead in addressing the obstacles faced by women in entering and staying in the workforce. The private sector can collaborate with stakeholders to create a supportive environment for women.

For instance, banks in a specific locality could work together to establish a childcare centre or transportation system for female staff. Companies can also customise flexible work schedules, to accommodate different job responsibilities and locations.

Furthermore, it’s critical to address the issue of trained professionals leaving their careers to care for their children, often referred to as the “leaky pipeline.” One solution is for companies to partner with local schools to offer extended after-school programmes. This arrangement benefits everyone involved, by generating additional income for the schools, providing reliable childcare options for parents until the end of their workday, and offering extra learning opportunities for children.

Another option is to establish low-cost childcare systems in neighbourhoods, where neighbours can care for each other’s children while their mothers’ work. This approach has been successful in many communities, and provides practical and affordable childcare solutions for working women.

TIPS FOR FEMALE EMPLOYEES

Women, in general, tend to be hesitant to look ahead due to the dual roles they juggle. However, through global and local conversations and interventions, women can explore ways to address the barriers which prevent them in pursuing their career of choice. Here are some recommended strategies and examples from career coaches:

Aspire to reach the top: Setting clear goals can help navigate the challenge. For instance, a woman at a large NGO worked to boost her confidence and visibility among teams. After identifying ways to improve, she successfully asked for a promotion and received it.

Engaging with a mentor is recommended: Women in the workplace need to network and seek mentoring. This could be someone in the workplace, a teacher or a friend, who ideally should have more work experience and can act as a sounding board. As women manage dual roles, they need to remember the importance of networking at work. For instance, a young finance professional found a better job fit after getting guidance from a mentor within her organisation.

Career coaching can bring clarity: There is a growing global trend towards career coaching, which helps people clarify their needs at each stage. This reflective approach helps people work through their internal reservations and recognise their role in moving forward.

Engaging with other working women: Building relationships with women in similar situations can be vital for support during difficult times. Many women find it challenging to network after work due to family responsibilities. Online groups and connecting with other working females can provide valuable advice and support.

Be professional in your approach: Networking platforms help women compare company policies, such as flexible work hours and remote work options, and initiate conversations in their organisations. They can also discuss other benefits, such as childcare support and transportation. Taking a professional and data-driven approach is essential for successful conversations.

Act responsibly: After the organisation implements new policies, it’s important to note that there’s a possibility of abuse by anyone, regardless of gender. Since new policies may have initial challenges, employees must act responsibly and provide constructive feedback. This will enhance the acceptance of new approaches, allowing women to fully benefit.

Know your worth: To succeed in any profession, it’s essential to take ownership of one’s skills, confidently showcase accomplishments and master the art of salary negotiation. These proactive measures will help establish one’s reputation, earn respect and reach professional objectives.

It may be unrealistic to achieve Pakistan’s target for women’s workforce participation in 2025, without addressing the systemic barriers that exist at the policy and corporate levels. However, socio-economic conditions are bringing financial constraints that will require households to have two sources of income. It is important for policymakers and the private sector to work together to find solutions.

Additionally, it is equally important for women to voice their need to work at various platforms. As 49 percent of the population, women can use their collective influence to advocate for addressing these barriers.

Nazish Shekha is Head of Initiative, Centre of Excellence in Responsible Business (CERB), PBC.

Rajaa Bokhari is Programme Manager for Inclusive Development at CERB, PBC.

Dure Sameen Akhund is Sustainability Research Manager at CERB, PBC. They can be contacted at cerb@pbc.org.pk

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 16th, 2024

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