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Forced out of work

There are many impediments on the way to Pakistani women realising their full potential in the workplace

Forced out of work

In a fiercely patriarchal society like Pakistan, gender inequality is an unspoken norm. Ranging from a thousand micro-aggressions against women’s rights to maintain their individual identity, to completely undermining their right to live up to their full economic and professional potential, our society stubbornly insists on diminishing women to a certain stereotype, one that allows the opposite gender to feel less threatened.

Many would find the part about economically under-capacitating women flagrantly unjust since we hold high claims about being progressively forward in our gender ideals. After all, we are proud to have our women heading our information and technology ministry, leading banks, climbing Mount Everest and for setting various world records, but sense demands us to look upon these as one-off cases.

The glaring truth is that when it comes to women in the workforce, we see an alarmingly scant number of women holding senior positions at financial institutions, legal setups, tech-industries, media houses and corporate structures.

Apart from a handful, in other careers, with the exception of education, motherhood signals the end of a glorious career for women.

According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2015, showcasing a study of 145 countries, Pakistan stands second last at 144 on the gender gap index. Not simply this, we have a 0.03 female to male ratio when it comes to legislators, senior officials, and managers with only six per cent firms with female top managers. This is startling statistics for a country with a predominant female population where they routinely outperform men in almost all fields of study.

One of the biggest reasons that can be attributed to the stubbornly wide gap between women and men holding senior positions is that as women go through a cycle of professional growth and progression, they also undergo personal evolution from being single and available 24/7 for never-ending office work to being married and desperately searching for a work-life balance. Hence, they quite literally fail to bag the employer’s popular choice award. Two-thirds of the interviewed women confessed that their employers weren’t very comfortable with their bi-monthly time-offs for antenatal visits, and saw it grudgingly as a start of an on-going series of excuses climaxing on the most-dreaded maternity leave.

Asma, 29, working at a middle management capacity in an insurance company, saw no reason to continue as she approached the sixth month of her pregnancy. “My supervisor was already upset with my bi-monthly antenatal visits and with the fact that I couldn’t get work done from home as I used to. And then my big talk on maternity leave and who’ll replace me during the time had also gone sour. So, I saw no reason why I should continue, knowing that I was more of a burden than a resource for my company.”

And even when some harder-to-crack ones stubbornly continue if they are not clearly guided their way out, the sorry absence of office day-care decides for them in the end. Embarrassed and guilty, they join the league of quitters who could no longer withstand their fight against the not-so-proverbial glass ceiling, that only a fortunate handful manage to smash.

Qurat-ul-Ain, 33, left work when her child started going to school, coinciding with her domestic help’s unavailability to stay beyond noon. Having been denied a six-hour work day after almost eight years of serving at a company, she decided there was no choice for her but to leave. “I never had a desk job. And so I thought I’d skip lunch break and continue to work from home after I pick my son up from school. But it was unacceptable to my boss since it was against the organisation’s policy. It was hard for me to arrange for someone trustworthy to look after my son. Hence, I had to quit.”

Even though the availability of day-care could have solved Qurat-ul-Ain’s problem, this culture is mostly true for multi-nationals that ensure day-care set up since they claim to uphold family-friendly and anti-sexist values that do not view motherhood as a threat to employee efficiency. As for private day-care centres, there are hardly 10 registered set-ups to cater to thousands of working parents in the hugely populous metropolis, Karachi.

Apart from a handful, in other careers, with the exception of education, motherhood signals the end of a glorious career for women. Some employers also believe that it’s essential to replace women with men staff members to ensure long-term stability in the organisation.

After getting past a series of stronger-than-iron filters, those successful few who still manage to survive the anti-feminist rhetoric of the corporate world have to compromise on salaries for being allowed discretion and flexibility with their occasional family time-outs. And so, never reach their full economic output.

Hence, it won’t be outrageous to assume that women in Pakistan are routinely presented with a singular choice between their career and their families, since both are mutually exclusive. Being traditional caregivers for children, aging parents and ailing relatives, they choose to opt out. However, it would be grossly unfair to view this as a choice instead of a systematic mechanism that filters women out. For those who stay to reap whatever little financial benefits they are offered have to make unspeakable family and lifestyle compromises that wreak slow yet gradual havoc on their physical and mental health.

If the flag-bearers of patriarchy are not familiar with the economic benefits of keeping women in the workforce, there are prestigious surveys on how equalising the ratio of men to women in the workplace can not only give phenomenal boost to a country’s GDP but an organisation’s overall productivity. According to one of the many UN reports asserting the importance of women at the workplace, “It is estimated that companies with three or more women in senior management functions score higher in all dimensions of organizational effectiveness.”

For the sake of economic benefits and more for a balanced and fair society, it’s imperative that women are allowed to reach their full economic potential and not systematically pushed out in the process. With technology continuously blurring physical boundaries, working remotely, at least in part, is a great way to allow women more time with their families without compromising their output. And thus, the burning choice to stay or to not stay will no longer hold valid. What’s more important though is a deliberate decision to break free from the shackles of stereotypical masculine mindsets that fail to see women’s potential beyond traditional roles of rolling headaches away and bringing teacups, and consciously erasing them from the economic mainstream, impairing society and its evolution.

Madiha Saad

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