KARACHI: What do Asma Jahangir, Bapsi Sidwa, Hadiqa Kiyani and Shaheed Benazir Bhutto have in common? All of them attended women’s-only colleges – and sometimes women’s-only schools as well. Add Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, Madeleine Albright, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy but, the list remains endless.
Regardless of their fields, these women went on to achieve significant worldly success therein. There are numerous studies, in America at least, that indicate women who study at women’s-only institutions are more accomplished than those from co-ed colleges.
These women are just more comfortable in their own skin – pun unintended.
Imagine extrapolating this optimistic environment.
Counterparts, not copies
Women have been around, well, as long as men have. Yet, the flux and transitioning around women’s participation is just as fiery today.
The reality is that women and men are different. Redundant as this statement seems, few find it politically palatable. Equitable; counterparts - but not copies.
Maybe, it’s that corporate structures and their emerging organograms – that this article is anchored around – are still new in the span of human history. For these historically nascent structures, and beyond, may we humbly suggest the following — women to have their own spaces.
Controversial as it may sound, as a global woman-citizen who’s empowered by any definition, I can certainly say this.
Protected participation: safety first
Protected this inclusion of women must be.
Around 53% women were bold enough to say that “a strictly enforced sexual harassment policy was their top concern”, according to the Gender Diversity in Corporate Pakistan Report 2013.
It’s hard to pin down an exact figure given all the pressures around reporting harassment: the fourth Asian CPA conference estimates that 90% women are harassed at work or on their way to or from work.
With a female labour force participation of 24%, about 7 million women are part of Pakistan’s work-force, as of 2011.
You do the math - and count yourself lucky if no one in your immediate family has been a sufferer of this thus-far ill-fated 90%.
Pink rickshaws anyone? Imagine these by-women, for-women modes of transportation currently brightening up Lahore’s streets. At least, women can be safer on the roads.
Imagine an environment where harassment is a moot point. Imagine the spikes in productivity. Imagine the fertile ground for creativity this would be.
Being taken seriously
An editor I recently worked with asked me to write ‘something light – maybe something women-centric’. That’s right — the words light and women in the same breath.
While he is a great guy, it is a transparent reflection of where women oft stand in the minds of even the educated among society – men and women.
Often the token inclusion of women in corporate spaces ends up being driven by intentions that are a far cry from a merit-based, gender-neutral systems. We’ll tackle the misogyny-laced theory behind hiring women as receptionists, hostesses or saleswomen in businesses that are not women-centric another time.
Ironically, this same meritocracy holds women in senior executive roles to a higher bar than their male counterparts. This may be part of the reason why only 5% women hold leadership positions in Pakistani companies.
To add to this irony, 58-62% of students enrolled in masters programmes are, you guessed it, women, according to the Pakistan Think Tank, December 2013.
Emergence of professional women’s-only networks
Testament to this almost palpable demand for women’s-only spaces that foster uninhibited excellence is the emergence of a variety of white-collar women’s-only networks.
There’s ‘Women in Business Pakistan’, founded with the vision to offer the same technical training as offered to all corporate leaders, yet in an unabashed women’s-only environment. Their kick-off is with a no-nonsense hard-core sustainability master-class by the founder herself. This network’s not about photo-ops and feel-good fluffiness.
Then there’s the research-backed ‘HerCareer’: “an upbeat community of professional women seeking advice, inspiration, and the tools needed to succeed”.
Then there are initiatives like ‘WomenX’ and the Women’s Chamber for women entrepreneurs. There are also almost infinite one-off events.
There are scores of non-profits toiling for women’s empowerment, serving the 75+% women who do not fall within the professional or even working women’s banner.
Including organizations that realize that women pumping petrol and flipping burgers is not empowerment.
Financial institutions such as First Women’s Bank or the Ladies Fund have been established for even longer. Why not give women themselves the dedicated focus?
Truly tapping potential
The idea doesn’t stem from ra-ra feminism. It’s not about ‘turning the tables’ in male-dominated areas either. It’s about extrapolating a proven successful environment – and facilitating 49% of Pakistan to really achieve its potential in an unthreatened, positive space.
The writer is a consultant, journalist and has won the CNN and the CSR Europe Young Journalist Awards
Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2015.
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