The glass ceiling effect: What’s holding women back?

Published: October 14, 2013
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Ms.T enters the corporate world to examine the biggest barrier holding working women back and what they can do to get past it.

Ms.T enters the corporate world to examine the biggest barrier holding working women back and what they can do to get past it.

In early July 2001, when Musharaf Hai was appointed as chairman and CEO of Unilever Pakistan, the corporate world went ablaze with the news since it was the first time that a woman had been granted such a powerful position.

While her excellent credentials suggested otherwise, many were skeptical about her ability to lead in a field dominated by men, especially considering the intense pressure that a high profile job like this entails. Fortunately, Hai proved herself by not only making Unilever into Pakistan’s largest consumer goods company but also being ranked amongst the 50 most powerful women in business by Fortune magazine (2004). She currently serves as Managing Director of L’oreal Pakistan and a part-time advisor to local economic forums as well.

Taking away from the example of Hai, one can conclude that the last decade has experienced a rising awareness of the value women add to the corporate world, their impact on an organisation and the contribution they make to the economy at large. This realisation has encouraged many local organisations to offer workplace amenities such as day-care centres, improved maternity leave policies and establishing office committees to cater to their female employees while they work. Unfortunately, these measures fail to break through the invisible barrier of gender bias and at times, outright misogyny, i.e. the glass-ceiling that exists in the corporate world and denies women the right to move up the hierarchy. In other words, a glass-ceiling is an informal set of values or attitudes that limit the level to which women or other minorities can ascend in the organization and is a leading cause of female employee turnover in Pakistan.

Despite having a relatively high number of women in the Parliament, as compared to other South Asian countries (19% of Parliamentarians are women), working women in Pakistan still face great obstacles moving up the corporate ladder and are often excluded from the decision-making process for important social, political and economic issues. The fact that Pakistan ranks second last in a list of 135 countries with gender gap (World Economic Forum 2012) suggests that workplace equality is still a farfetched idea in the country and this can have severe repercussions on not just the health and education of ambitious women across the world but also business and society in general.

Reasons for glass-ceiling

According to Waqar Ahsan, a banker by day and trainer/lecturer by night, glass-ceiling is the results of decades of societal and gender norms that hinder female involvement outside the confines of their homes, let alone in an office. “The glass-ceiling occurs because of things like having to travel to work and stay away from their household duties,” suggests Ahsan. “An employee who has other chores to worry about, compared to one who doesn’t, is less likely to remain focused in the office so one can understand why men would be the first choice when assigning positions of influence. Not to mention working with women entails maternity leaves and other considerations as well,” he adds.

Perhaps glass-ceiling can also be attributed to years of male leadership in the corporate world which has created a masculine, patriarchal working environment. “Women on the other hand tend to have a different, much softer leadership style,” explains Ahsan.

Building on Ahsan’s viewpoint, HR Manager Sarah Abid suggests that “the nature of men and women are such that women are much more risk-averse than men when in reality, business is often all about taking risks. A female employee’s caution, although a good thing, can be just what keeps her from a more lucrative job.”

Sabeen Fareed, a Quality Assurance Engineer at a multinational software house has a less holistic view. According to Fareed, women themselves encourage the prevalence of glass-ceiling since they rarely ever stick around in one company long enough to attain a higher position. “Hard work aside, getting to the top takes time. Unfortunately, so many Pakistani women drop out of work for shaadi, bachay or ghardaari etc. How can they progress when they aren’t working at all?” she says.

Additionally, female employees aren’t given the mentorship and assistance by their seniors, who subconsciously overlook their qualifications and abilities simply because they are women.  Therefore, men are more likely to hire people who similar to them, i.e. other men.

Effects of glass-ceiling

Perpetuating a cycle of unfulfilled career expectations among women can spread insecurity and even depression. “It’s only natural that I would feel unappreciated if my hard work was not being paid off,” says Hina Shahid, a full-time investment banker. “It is highly upsetting and de-motivating to feel like you are not worth it and can make you want to resign.”

We must also remember that the level of sexism and chauvinism rampant in Pakistan worsens the economy by adding to under or no employment and poverty.

Break the glass-ceiling

According to the Pakistan Council of Science and Technology, the current ratio of female contribution to the boardrooms of Pakistan is  just 4.6% and despite improvements over the last decade, Pakistan remains a primarily male-dominated economy. But what can be done to grant women more power? How can the scales be tipped in favour of the career-oriented, focused women who wish to break the mould and make a mark in the world?

Unfortunately, there is no set formula to counter glass-ceiling in the office. It takes exceptional courage for a woman to voice such sensitive issues. Nonetheless, one must take the risk to honour her ambitions and for these enterprising women, we recommend the following:

•  Strive not for equality but being better than the competition. It is crucial to work hard and build a solid case for a promotion: if you are worth the hassle, any organisation should be willing to break its norms for you. And if you are being discriminated against, stay and fight for your rights.

•  Generally, it is easy to gauge an organization’s values and philosophy by its senior management i.e. if the upper tier of employees has few or no women, it could be a bad sign. Hence, it is advisable to glance at the higher ranks before taking up employment at a firm to avoid issues in the future.

•  Remember that companies who do not appreciate workforce diversity are likely to see good people resign frequently and may not change their policies. Hence, seek a career in a company that isn’t too strict or male-dominated. A flexible and caring firm is also likely to be much more conducive to working women in other aspects as well, such as maternity leaves and office timings.

•  Always know and advocate your value. Others will not appreciate your skills and potential unless you do and make your co-workers aware of them. So stop selling yourself short and show off your achievements. You are worth much more than you know!

•  Do not be afraid to pave your own path as this is the path that will lead to success. Do as you please, so long as you believe that it is the right course of action and then stick to it. Trying to fit in hampers one’s uniqueness which in today’s competitive word, is necessary to move ahead. Therefore, be bold and stand away from the crows; tiptoeing around issues and shying away from voicing your opinions will not get you noticed.

•  It is a fact that nobody, men and women alike, can expand their knowledge, gain experience and become sound leaders without taking a few risks in their careers. While this may indeed put your (and your subordinates) career in jeopardy, playing it safe will not boost your leadership skills. Hence, be confident! Put yourself out there and take chances because even if your plan backfires, your self-esteem will not. As Harvard Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich puts it, “well behaved women seldom make history.”

Glass-ceiling is a manifestation of the constant struggle working women face in trying to fulfil their aspirations and achieve equal opportunities in our country. This artificial ‘wall’ must be broken if Pakistan is to prosper and keep its female population happy.

Pakistani women who have broken the glass

•  Naz Khan, Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Engro Corp

•  Maheen Rahman, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of IGI Funds

•  Ayesha Farooq, the first female fighter pilot in the history of the Pakistani airforce

•  Fariyha Subhani, Director Unilever Foods

Some surprising facts: 

– In the year 2000, the Fortune 500 companies had only 3 female CEOs which rose to 15 by 2009.

– Last year, women constituted just 14.3% of executive positions in the Fortune 500.

– UNESCO is the only branch of the United Nations to have appointed a woman as its Director General, i.e. Irina Bokova.

– According to the World Economic Forum, not a single company listed on Japan’s Nikkei 225 (a stock market index for the Tokyo Stock Exchange) run by women while female participation in politics is also negligible.

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, October 13th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • arooj
    Oct 15, 2013 - 1:17AM

    I love this topic as I am also working on it for my Mphil thesis.
    Very well written, thank u 4 providing valuable information especially the facts and figures,
    I hope one day we will be able to overcome this barrier.

    Recommend

  • Iram Moazzam
    Oct 19, 2013 - 12:03AM

    @arooj:
    Thank you Arooj for liking this article. Glad to know that it added to your knowledge :)

    Recommend

  • Abid P. Khan
    Oct 25, 2013 - 12:13PM

    @arooj:
    “I hope one day we will be able to overcome this barrier.”

    .
    I hope, your hope becomes a reality some day. With demands for female education becoming life-threatening, I am far less sanguine today.

    Recommend

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