LAHORE: The clashing and droning of machines at work is deafening. Along the line is an endless supply of cola bottles dashing along in high speed. Clothed smartly in her company’s red uniform, Zara who has been working here for the past six months now is checking to see how the machines are getting along.
“I work here for eight hours every day and then go for my evening course in MS Office,” she reveals proudly.
“I already have a diploma in electronics from the Punjab University but I am still planning to study further and get a bachelor’s degree.”
Zara is happy that she has a job in one of the biggest multinational firms, and at the same time has the chance to study too. And there are several other young women at the same company who feel the same. But more than that they believe that hiring of women has helped change the work environment drastically.
“It seems like a cliché saying this but when women are hired, men start to accept them eventually and then ultimately they treat them equally and not as inferiors,” says another woman who works at one of the four operating production lines.
Many companies in Pakistan do not favour recruitment of women, and company heads believe that after a woman gets married or has children she leaves, or that she will get harassed at work. But now within some multinational corporations (MNCs) there hiring of more and more women at top positions is encouraged.
However, Coca Cola has been over the years bringing in more women in all positions.
“We believe in breaking down stereotypes, and to bring in gender sensitivity simply by opening up all our fields to women,” says Ammara, the company’s human resource head.
“It is not a question of numbers, it is a question of whether women are there or not. And most of the women we recruit give a top-notch performance.” To help out the women at work, there are several training opportunities.
One of the four women who work on such a position that breaks down gender stereotypes is 40-year-old Aasma Shaheen Iqbal. It ends up surprising many that Aasma drives a truck and that too on intercity travel.
“I owned a driving school, and then my husband passed away so I had to support my daughter on my own. Someone suggested that an MNC needed a driver so I applied,” she says.
“At first, I got apprehensive when I saw the truck but with proper training that I received here, I was able to drive quite well.” Today after over a year’s work at this position, Aasma feels quite important while working at an unlikely post.
Aasma’s professional journey during this one year is interesting.
“In the beginning, when I used to drive, the men, especially in the smaller districts, used to stare and ogle at me and I felt nervous. A female teacher used to accompany me on these trips in her own car because we used to go and give presentations to other workers (usually male) on health and safety. My job was also to roll out and hook up the equipment. When they saw me doing that they changed their superior attitude to that of respect.”
But chauvinism towards working women, especially in a job that has always been male-centric like driving heavy vehicles, has yet to change.
“Even today when I am sometimes taking the car out, I hear men around me shouting out like ‘Bibi, you won’t be able to do it, let a man take care of it,’ or ‘How will she do this, she is a woman.’ During such incidents, I completely ignore them because I trust my own technical skills and quietly tell them that if my company has hired me, it is because of some reason. And they are eventually silenced.”
Even on the road, she says, people often photograph her or make videos because it is a strange thing to see a woman drive a truck.
“You see if your organisation supports you, you feel that confidence. You know they have your back. I have been to such remote areas that usually women would not want to go there alone.”
Like most women, Aasma faced a little apprehension from home regarding the job. Her father and brother were both scared and hesitant but Aasma got the job and now they are proud of her.
Family support is also something that these women count on. But they say that even if the families are hesitant in the beginning, they are persuaded later on simply because they understand the company’s position on women.
“I have worked here for 11 years,” says Hina Mahmood, who is an executive in the quality control department. “I have never faced discrimination or harassment at workplace. The men who work with us respect us and we share a friendly relationship with many of them. In many cases, in fact, the women are given even more respect than men. Even if we stay in late at work, we have pick and drop service to help us out.”
Slowly the ratio of women hired is increasing, even though currently the ratio is far from 50-50.
“We do not get caught up in numbers though we know many more women must be brought in,” says Ammara. “But if we are too conscious of just the numbers or a quota all time we may end up ignoring the employees’ merits. In fact, this is a concept that works far beyond the gender of the employee. We must begin to supersede whether it is a male or a female. We must open all areas of work for both of them so there is no stereotype left. It is a paradigm shift and it must become part of our lives and eventually part of the system. We as a company have tried to employ women as distributors, entrepreneurs, fork lifters, and truck drivers. And at the same time we promise them security, respect and equal pay without gender bias.”