Viewed from the peripheral vision of my personal calendar of commitments, 2014 seems to stand out as the year for women. Ten events focusing on women in as many months clearly indicates that the momentum to highlight women and their achievements picked up this year, but perhaps so did the need to keep the discourse focused on resolving their unaddressed concerns.
Three of these events were organised by or at INSEAD. I was invited in March this year to the Abu Dhabi campus to celebrate International Women’s Day. A lineup of remarkable women as guest speakers and a room full of inspiring women ensured a day to refresh our minds, renew our motivation and re-energise ourselves for the challenges ahead. The first female judge of the arbitration courts in Dubai, an enterprising doctor also from the UAE, a young lady from Afghanistan who at the age of eighteen had set up a school of leadership for women in Afghanistan and a race car driver from Turkey were among those who had worked against the odds to realise their dreams. The series of celebrations entitled “Inspire, Impact and Empower” ensured that INSEAD remained current with the universal recognition of women’s role in business and society at large.
Next came an invitation to participate in the INSEAD Dinner Series: Ideas that Inspire, organised in Europe for the first time following successful editions in Asia. A highly interactive and thought provoking session that brought together a select group of thought leaders from business and INSEAD academics to share insight and experience on critical trends affecting business leadership. Professor Herminia Ibarra made an enlightening presentation on “Women rising: The unseen barriers”. The discussion centered on the reasons for the lack of positive outcome for CEOs and companies that spend time, money and good intentions on efforts to build a more robust pipeline of upwardly mobile women. The discussions also helped to refocus on Professor Ludo Van Der Heyden’s groundbreaking work on Women on Boards. This INSEAD-led initiative generated a database of “board ready” women from amongst alumni creating awareness about the depth of existing talent available for companies willing to provide greater gender diversity in their boardrooms.
Following on the heels of this initiative was a conference on women organised by students at INSEAD on the Fontainebleau campus. Though unable to attend personally, I was delighted to hear about its success both in terms of the participation as well as the awareness it helped to create on relevant issues.
These INSEAD centered events were supplemented in my diary by local initiatives in Pakistan to organise conferences for Women in Business, to celebrate the first International Women Entrepreneurs day declared by the U.N, as well as the opportunity to attend the first Start-up weekend for Women Entrepreneurs in Iran! For somebody who does not have a professional focus on gender issues, it was both enlightening and inspiring.
In one of these events I was asked my opinion on why women, despite having an almost proportionate representation in the higher educational institutes in Pakistan do not make it to the job market in the same numbers. My answer, analysed as an economist in terms of a supply and demand issue may have some relevance, in varying degrees, to other societies as well.
In Pakistan, a number of factors feed into each other and result in a vicious cycle of exclusion by the job market and seclusion by the women themselves. On the supply side, social norms and the existing patriarchal system make families uncomfortable with the idea of female members of their family mingling with men in the workplace. Sexual harassment has a large role to play in this. If there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment in society, there would be greater comfort for the families in accepting their wives and daughters going to work. Unfortunately, even the recent law in Pakistan that addressed this issue failed to define what constitutes harassment.
Secondly the motivation and confidence of the women themselves sometimes lags behind their innate abilities, when their entire childhood has been spent hearing how their role in life is to get married and bear children. Even though most families have been forced to reconsider this in light of the sheer necessity of having multiple bread earners in the family, domestic duties are still expected to be the exclusive domain of the women. This imposes a greater burden on the working woman and at some stage in her career, tired and exhausted, she herself chooses to opt out of the job market.
So what is impacting the demand? Most employers see women as hard working and competent but have a real problem retaining them beyond marriage and kids. This means that they would rather invest in terms of training and grooming staff members that are likely to stick it out in the long term. Since most recruiters and decision makers are men, their choices reflect their own ideal of a potential employee, i.e reflections of themselves! Fewer women get recruited, even fewer women get promoted through the ranks to reach positions where they can have a say in the work environment for themselves.
What can we do about this? On the supply side, it is obvious that unless there is a change in social norms, attitudes towards women, respect for women in the workplace and greater division of household duties at the home front, fewer women will want to venture into the unknown. Gender sensitivity training for all positions, managerial or otherwise would help. Laws and regulations are not enough, though it would help to have them properly enforced. A real change in the mindset is perhaps what is needed most.
On the demand side, more and more employers are realising that there are ways and means of retaining women beyond marriage and families. I have always maintained that the 9 to 5 regime was designed by men to shirk household duties! If the work does not require physical presence for an eight hour day, allow flexi time…not just for women, but men as well so they can help with household duties. Provide day care facilities for breast feeding mothers, provide transportation to those unable or unwilling to use public transportation systems. But most importantly, get women into decision making positions so that they can start having a meaningful say in how to create a conducive, enabling environment for women to flourish at the workplace. The presence of role models, mentors and counseling will go a long way in encouraging more women to work and remain employed in the long term.
To put the finishing touches on my “Year of the Woman”, a local MNC in Pakistan decided to launch a new product by nominating 100 Miracle Women of Pakistan. These Miracle Women (myself included!) were selected for their ability to successfully balance their work and personal commitments. For next year, my suggestion to the MNC would be to nominate 100 Miracle Men in Pakistan, defined by those who are able to fulfil their professional commitments alongside participating fully in the discharge of household responsibilities. I suspect identifying those 100 may be more of a challenge in the current social environment.
However, recognising their efforts will send the right signal for other men and give the Miracle Women what they need most… a well-deserved rest!
Find out more about women’s initiatives at INSEAD.