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Businesswomen on the move

By Arif Zaman

Three very different events involved Pakistan’s businesswomen in a central role last week. All in their own way revealed the potential and challenges for women’s economic empowerment in the country’s still excessively masculine/patriarchal corporate culture.

But first it is worth reviewing the recent evidence. With Davos in full swing this month with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on a panel, the World Economic Forum 2011 Global Gender Gap Index published a few weeks ago paints a grim picture. Pakistan scored worst amongst the 54 members of the commonwealth in five key areas – the overall gender gap, economic participation and opportunity, the ratio of female earned income over male value, the ratio of female labour force participation over male value and the ratio of female legislators, senior officials and managers over male value.

According to International Labour Organization (ILO) research a year ago, women in Pakistan continue to face discrimination in the formal and informal economy with growing numbers in the latter as more of them participate as family earners to sustain their families and to earn some extra income. Moreover, in separate research in the same period, the ILO found that the media’s role deserves scrutiny with 46 percent of stories reinforcing gender stereotypes, almost eight times higher than stories that challenge such stereotypes.

But what were the three events?

A phone call to Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy on a Tuesday night in Karachi brought the news that she had been nominated for the first Oscar by a Pakistani in the nation’s history. While that itself is a singular achievement, the subject matter of Sharmeen’s documentaries are not for the faint-hearted – women in Saudi Arabia, Native American women in Canada, illegal abortions in the Philippines and, for her Oscar nomination, women who have been injured in acid attacks in Pakistan and the aftermath of their disfigurement. This award is particularly poignant given how the victims took their experience into a campaign to have an Act to Prevent Acid Crime passed only last month.

Sharmeen’s success is also an important indicator of how successful women can be when they enter non-traditional areas such as media, film and the creative industries in the service sector. The services sector has emerged as the main driver of economic growth in recent years and it outpaced the growth in commodity producing sectors during the last decade. Pakistan has also seen a major transformation in the economic structure and the share of the services sector has risen to 53.3 percent in 2010-11, its highest share in the last two decades – but now supported by a demographic with many more younger people and with access to technology to drive social change. This is an encouraging backdrop against women can succeed.

The second event – at which Sharmeen’s speech was a highlight – was the 4th Women in Business Conference (WIBCON). A packed room at the Marriot Crystal Ballroom in Karachi brought together several hundred women. Practically the only men in the room (including this writer) were in the front row. In a session with corporate leaders consisting of people who are or have been in leadership roles at the Pakistan Business Council, the Karachi Chamber and the Overseas Chamber, the irony of no women being on the stage (apart from the facilitator) was not lost on many of the women in the hall, especially given that some women are now becoming more visible in senior roles in the corporate world. Ironically this mirrored the same situation in a session at the World Economic Forum last year.

However Asad Umar, Engro’s President and Chairman of the Pakistan Business Council (PBC), commendably and characteristically raised a topic which was the elephant in the Crystal Ballroom: sexual harassment in the workplace. In an impassioned appeal, he argued that making statements on which everyone agreed about the value of women in senior decision-making roles was not enough. He cited the example of how in 2010 Engro developed an anti discrimination and sexual harassment policy to ensure that its female employees felt safe at work. Engro worked with Dr. Fouzia Saeed, author of the just published riveting, groundbreaking and shocking expose of sexual harassment at the UN, ‘Working with Sharks’ which also provides an instructive read in reputational risk for an organisation that ironically now has more women in senior roles than ever before and one on which Pakistan currently sits on its key decision-making body (the UN Security Council).

The point was that Engro wanted to address this issue in a meaningful way but needed guidance from people with expertise and experience in the area. Dr. Saeed and AASHA (of which she is a founding member), an alliance of organisations committed to curb sexual harassment at workplace, helped Engro develop a system and process to address such ‘structural biases.’ Asad Umar then made an offer to those present – that Engro was willing to sponsor a platform which could work with the private sector to do the same in this and other areas. It is not clear whether his offer registered with anyone to take forward but his position at the PBC could provide a significant impetus to taking this statement from vision to reality.

Another perspective from a leading woman entrepreneur was that the critical issue was having more women in more senior roles as that is a necessary pre-condition of women even wanting to talk about these issues. This is clearly part of the solution. Some progress is being made in the fact that 37 of the 438 participants in the Pakistan Institute of Corporate Governance’s Director Education Program since 2007 have been women with their contribution active and impressive but there is much further to go.

The third event took place within 24 hours of WIBCON. This brought together a dozen women as the first Pakistan Steering Group of the recently launched initiative on Commonwealth Businesswomen (CBW) which is being driven by businesswomen in three countries: Australia, the UK – and Pakistan. This included senior representatives of the Pakistan Business and Professional Women’s Association, a diverse group of female business and social entrepreneurs and women from IT, logistics, finance, media, construction, consulting, automotive and education. Most met in person hosted at Netsol’s office in Karachi with others dialling in on skype from Islamabad and Lahore.

The changemakers spent several hours with the aim to connect, collaborate and contribute in five main areas (the 5 P’s) – potential, progression, platform, procurement and policy. In particular they began work in earnest on how they could translate this into key local implementation initiatives and support women’s economic empowerment with a focus on distinct areas.

While Pakistan has an increasing number of initiatives on gender equality, it has to be said that too many remain of variable quality and impact with some having questionable agendas. In the case of CBW, Pakistan the crucial differentiator is the international dimension and one in which Pakistan can be a key player and shaper. This sees economic empowerment for Pakistan’s businesswomen better enabled and enhanced through international linkages and a profile and a platform with other Commonwealth countries. Perhaps this is one area which has been lacking in efforts to date. Watch this space!
The writer is an adviser to the Commonwealth Business Council and an associate with Mettle Consulting.

Source: The News

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