KARACHI: On its website, the Sindh Women Development Department boasts that women constitute 48 per cent of the country’s total population of 155 million. What the site, however, fails to explain is why this important section of the country’s population is largely under- represented in the boardroom of listed companies in Pakistan.
Comparing Pakistan to France, Spain or Norway where the parliament made it mandatory for women to occupy 40 per cent of board seats of all listed companies may be too much to ask for. But for a country that comprises a fair percentage of talented women in the corporate sector, gender diversity is all but absent in corporate boards.
Charles De Gaulle is widely quoted as having said: “One may not command without having obeyed”, pointing to the fact that few women have had 30 or so odd years of experience of climbing the corporate ladder that a good director requires.
The same may be true in the case of Pakistan, but there are a good number of female executives who have excelled in their work in listed companies such as the Unilever, HBL, UBL, MCB, Byco (formerly known as Bosicor oil Pakistan), Procter & Gamble to name a few.
Despite having spent over 30 years in their relevant industry and excelling in their field of work, none of them were considered as members of the board in the said companies. It is here that the role of the government should come in that should make it mandatory for all listed companies to allot a quota for women in the boardroom either in the form of non-executive or executive directors.
“Women tend to demand more facts and details,” comments a former CEO, who preferred anonymity. As a current board member of a listed company, he shared an interesting viewpoint on the importance of gender diversity in a boardroom. “Women are always much more prepared and interested in getting the facts. They also tend to ask more questions as compared to men.”
It is because women tend to view an organisation as more of a living thing that they are interested in inquiring about the working of the organisation they are affiliated with. Some common questions women executives are seen asking in general discussions at the workplace include: “Don’t just show me the PowerPoint, who are these people and what are their responsibilities?” they often demand to know. This is not to say that women are more risk-averse but that may generally be more aware of risks.
In a rapidly modernising world, there is a general consensus on the need for gender diversity that will help set a new paradigm for corporate governance. “If you have 12 gray-haired men with an average age of 65 on a board, they tend to think about business prospects and strategy from the same perspective. But if you add a 45-year-old from a company, a woman and an international representative on this same board, the quality of debate and discussion is likely to improve,” remarked an industrialist. In essence, boardroom diversity for a listed company is deeply important.
Another banker believes that women have proved to be effective crisis management leaders and because they are risk-ready and willing to focus on long-term interests of the company as opposed to their male counterparts, their presence needs to be acknowledged.
“Additionally, they tend to be intuitive managers, resulting in fair and sound judgment. And they do not push for prestige as much as men do,” he says.
However, the stereotype in Pakistan is that a woman’s naturally- defined role of a wife and mother would hinder her performance at the workplace and are often not taken seriously after their marriage. As a result, most women give up on their careers post-marriage because they are not given the opportunity to hold managerial positions despite being competent. This leads a man to become the sole breadwinner of the family despite having an educated and experienced spouse who can help him financially.
But the picture is not all that bleak. Women like Shazia Syed, who is an executive director at Unilever Pakistan has proved that maintaining the right balance is not all that difficult.
Having to deal with high stress levels, balancing their time at work and home and the guilt of not being there for their children is a common phenomenon women executives are faced with. Their male counterparts, however, do not have to deal with such pressures.
On the other hand, research has shown that women who combine a full- time job with raising children may actually be improving their chances of a healthy life. A recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in Britain claims that despite the stress working mothers deal with, they enjoy sound health and healthier relationships.
Keeping this in mind, India is one of the only South Asian countries where women are being empowered to promote gender diversity in the boardroom. According to a study conducted by an executive search firm EMA Partners, 11 per cent of the 240 public and private companies in India are headed by female CEOs.
The government of Pakistan should adopt a similar approach to incorporate the fairer sex into corporate governance codes and recognise her potential if it intends to win the race to empower women.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 31st, 2010.
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