As you climb the ladder at the workplace, from the mid-management level to the senior leadership positions, you find fewer and fewer women. Little wonder then that Naz Khan - chief finance officer at Engro Fertilizers, a subsidiary of one of Pakistan's largest conglomerates, Engro Corporation - says it gets lonely at the top.
"There are many more men up there who enjoy a certain camaraderie and buddy-ship of which you are not a part, and which is a disadvantage," says Khan, talking of the informal "old boy" networks that men get into so effortlessly.
"I and my husband don't drink and we do stand out as two sore thumbs at parties thrown regularly by my senior management," says thirty-something ZM (not willing to divulge her name), who works in an investment bank. Soon, she fears, she will stop getting invited altogether. She considers these after-work informal socials "absolutely necessary" for career advancement, and her inability to blend in a "disadvantage."
For far too long, it was assumed even in the developed world that as greater numbers of women moved up to become middle managers, they would make it to the top in time, and create a gender balance at corporate boards.
But study after study has shown otherwise. According to the 2010 report "Pipeline's Broken Promise" by Catalyst Research, a non-profit organisation, women may constitute 40 percent of the global workforce, yet among Fortune 500 companies, they represent only three percent of chief executive officers and 15 percent of board directors. Fewer than 14 percent of corporate executives in the top publicly traded companies around the world are women.
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And in Pakistan, while there is little doubt that it is a man's world up there, it would be unfair to say there is not enough room for women, or that this is the reason they have been unable to shatter what some call the mythical glass ceiling. Women, like 42-year-old Khan, mother of two teenage children, have shown they can climb up the greasy pole to success through sheer "hard work and keeping long hours."
So the biggest roadblock is themselves, some women say.
Fouzia Nasir Ahmed, who spent years in multinational corporations and reached the senior echelons before one day calling it quits as she felt she was stagnating, believes there is nothing that holds women back from moving up the ladder.
"Usually it is the woman's own choice not to leave the comfort zone, as she prefers to stay at mid-level where there is authority and responsibility, but where she can still juggle her domestic life which is important to most women as well, in fact, sometimes even more than their jobs."
According to Khan, the pressure and responsibility of holding a senior position can be daunting. "A lot of your energy goes into it. There comes a stage in their life where women who have spent a good many years at the mid-level position are just not willing to take on any more pressures. The wear and tear of having juggled a multitude of tasks for years begins to take its toll."
But she also acknowledges that a woman needs a "supportive environment, both at work and at home" to be able to reach such heady heights in one's career.
And while many companies may have removed structural barriers, the "role change" at home may not have evolved.
Khan describes the modern Pakistani woman as standing at a crossroads. "She's conflicted by trying to retain a semblance of the perceived traditional values of a Pakistani woman which include compromises, and at the same time move ahead progressively.
"And in this struggle to juggle the two roles, if she is not supported, it becomes exceedingly difficult," says Khan. Many an intelligent and ambitious woman may think the "unrest in her life" is not worth it and so she lets ambition and with it, all her dreams, go out the window. While acknowledging an innate need to "always please everyone," Amber Darr, a partner in a leading law firm, says, "Most Pakistani women lack confidence in their abilities."
For many even today, says Darr, a career is a stopgap arrangement till they get married. "Their ambition is marriage," she says, adding that this has a lot to do with how Pakistanis bring up their daughters. "They should have conviction and self-belief, which is still missing in many women," she says.
Ahmed concurs with what Darr says: "Women executives are not so much in demand in our society as happily married women, and that is why most aim to get married and have children at the right time, rather than move up the ladder."
And then there are some who simply wait.
SM (requesting anonymity) had been working in the financial industry and was considered highly competent, but never once got a raise in the seven years she was with the company, despite being loaded with more and more responsibilities. She said she had never asked.
"We forced her to write a letter to her supervisor asking her pay to be doubled; he did it with immediate effect," narrates her friend, who was hired a year back. "Most male bosses assume women are not supporting families and often do not feel the need to raise their pay."
Ali Amir, chief financial officer and company secretary of the multinational firm Lotte, believes that since most good organisations are meritocracy-based and provide equal opportunities within the system for women to progress to the top positions, they cannot make special considerations for women.
"A bigger exercise of mindset change has to be undertaken before we can bring about gender-specific policies," says Amir. Once attitudinal change happens - through education and changes in the home environment - retaining women will not be a problem, he says.
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