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Employers’ gender insensitivity

March 14, 2011

THE share of women in the country’s workforce has been increasing but apparently at a slower pace in the corporate sector. Most enterprises have yet to adopt gender equality policies in their business strategy. The obvious outcome is that the work environment is not conducive for female workers to achieve their best for themselves or their company.

The Pakistan Economic Survey 2009-10 puts female labour participation rate at 20 per cent in refined activity and 15 per cent in crude activity. Of the total female workforce, 0.1 per cent are employers, 13.1 per cent self-employed, 65 per cent unpaid family workers and, 21.8 per cent employees.

The information gathered shows that work environment continues to be gender insensitive. The employers tend to trivialise women specific issues and feel no pressure to implement whatever little protection is allowed to working women in the legal framework. The situation is said to be comparatively better in multinational companies.

The value of the gender dimension in the business strategy for achieving better tangible returns for a company has yet to be fully grasped by the business class.

Many leaders of business community or officials in the relevant ministries seem to be unaware of the concept of ‘gender audit’ conducted at regular intervals in many business establishments in developed economies to monitor progress of gender sensitive strategies.

Senator Haji Ghulam Ali, President Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, supported participation of women in the economic mainstream unlike his predecessor Sultan Chawala who considered women more suitable for their role as homemaker. Senator Haji, however, saw discrimination at workplace more as an issue of fairness instead of competitiveness and productivity.

The FPCCI president who assumed office a few months back, acknowledged that career women get a raw deal in society and need institutional support to beat the odds.

“We made necessary changes in the FPCCI’s by-laws to reserve a seat of vice president for women entrepreneur so that their problems get due focus”, he told Dawn.

Dr Shehla, the newly appointed VP of the FPCCI, told this scribe from Lahore over phone that she had been active in creating awareness among women in Lahore and Islamabad about the ‘Protection of Sexual Harassment at Work Place Act 2010.’

Moin Fudda, Country director, Center for International Private Enterprise, says that the country has a long way to go before the gender discrimination at work place ends.

“We have discussed the issue being faced by women entrepreneurs at various forums but the situation of women workforce is too wide a subject. Probably multinationals treat them better but I do not expect local companies to be too generous towards them”, Fudda said.

Tough economic conditions and rising aspiration for better life were key drivers forcing women to enter job market in increasing numbers.

The socio-cultural conditions, however, drive them towards unskilled low paid jobs. The feminised professions such as teaching, lower level administrative jobs, sales, nursing and household work, are fields with greater concentration of females.

The better paid categories with noticeable women presence are medicine and media.

The textiles and pharmaceutical sector not only employ women in large numbers for some categories of jobs but prefer women workers over men. This, however, does not ensure better pay or decent working conditions. The high rate of women unemployment is one reason for it.

“Who can bargain when there is no job security and scores of job aspirants waiting for a vacancy”, asks Sakina, a textile worker from Korangi industrial area.

Many interviewed said the condition in almost all of these professions and trades are not satisfactory. The environment is gender insensitive that discourages women participation and minimises opportunities for their career advancement. The de facto situation is actually found to be worse than de jure framework for women workers.

“Whatever little safeguards and special provisions are allowed under labour laws for female labour have neither been implemented by employers nor monitored by the regulators,”, an ex-labour leader who lost job when she tried to unionize told Dawn.

“For achieving unbiased work environment that treats all workers equally and ensures that there is no discrimination on the basis of gender, offering equal opportunities of vertical and horizontal mobility to males and females, special incentives for women training and skill development and same remuneration for equal work, the women labour will have to mount pressure on employers and the government”, said a trade unionist sidelined in his company.

“Gender streamlining must form an integral part of economic strategies”, commented Arthur Bhayan, CEO, Competitive Support Fund.

“The government should ensure implementation of safeguards and women specific provisions in the labour laws in factories where there are more than 12 women workers. They should be provided facilities such as, paid maternity leaves, flexible working hours, medical cover, training incentives, etc.”, said Amina, a woman activist.

“The gender discrimination is rooted in the social system that is patriarchal. The social customs and norms perpetuate the perception of women being inferior to men. Therefore half-hearted superimposition of readymade one size fit all types of policies to enhance health, education, employment and other facilities for women have failed to produce targeted results”, she added.

Many female workers contacted made some minor complaints but generally assessed work environment positively.

The women factory workers assess the pathetic work environment positively because they ‘find it empowering’. It would not be possible to explain their attitude if their highly disadvantageous social placement in the society is not kept in sight.