When talking about working women in Pakistan, one cannot paint everyone with the same brush. This became evident during the course of numerous interviews that I conducted with working women across different fields and remunerative strata. The variations in each one’s situation, context and reasons for working were entirely unique.
I spoke to women who chose to work out of personal choice while others had to earn money out of necessity. Some received tremendous family support, while others had to fight a daily battle with their family members to exercise the right to work, leaving them with emotional scars.
While analyzing the stories that women told me about the issues they face, I have divided these under two broad categories which boil down to: challenges faced by women at the work place and challenges faced on the domestic or personal front.
Challenges at Workplace
It is gratifying to see that the number of women in Pakistan’s labour force is increasing, with women making 24% of the labour force. However, there are a number of impediments they have to face once they decide to participate in economic activity.
Discrimination is one of the major demons working women have to struggle with. Most women I spoke to felt that despite being equally, or more qualified and experienced than their male counterparts, they were not given equal remuneration, chances of promotion or training opportunities.
Women get the distinct impression that they are seen as unreliable, due to the fact that they require extended time off for marriage, maternity leave or other domestic reasons, which men do not need. Upon further inquiry, a lot of these women did admit that men take less days off work; however, they were quick to add that the quality of women’s work was better as they were more efficient at multi-tasking.
Maira, who has been working at a multi-national company in Lahore for two years, said that when her boss heard she was getting married the following year and moving to Australia, she did not get the bonus she deserved, whereas others did.
Another issue that cropped up with disturbing frequency is sexual harassment that women face at the workplace. This evil does not seem to spare women of any age, appearance or marital status and ranges in form from subtle harassment to more blatant abuse. Women feel vulnerable at work even if there is just one male colleague who interacts inappropriately with them.
Personal and Domestic Challenges
Personal guilt featured commonly in the interviews I analyzed. This emotion surfaced in working women in varying degrees and ebbed and flowed for some, but was a constant for others. The reasons cited were many.
This sentiment was very common, especially, among mothers of young children. Mubashra, a school teacher at a private school, says that she has to wake up herself and her 1-year-old daughter, Maria, extra early to be ready by 6:30 a.m. Then she takes public transport to drop her daughter at her mother’s house enroute her workplace. “The bell rings at 7:15 a.m. and I have to be inside the school’s main gate because my pay is deducted if I am late. My mother-in-law was not willing to look after my daughter but luckily my mother has agreed to babysit while I’m at school. My mother suffers from asthma and on the days that she does not feel well enough to take care of Maria, I have to take the day off. Unfortunately, my husband does not earn enough to cover our expenses. Making ends meet has become more difficult since Maria’s birth and I can’t afford to leave my job, yet I feel I am depriving Maria of my time at this crucial stage of her life, which will never come back.”
It is important to mention the initiative taken by the Directorate of Women’s Development, Government of Punjab, who have established the Punjab Day Care Fund (PDCF). Almost a hundred daycare centers have been set up on the premises of many government institutions, such as hospitals and universities, to support women with young children. This has set a positive example and more employers around Pakistan have started offering this facility to female employees. Employers are realizing that it is also to their advantage, since it will lead to less absenteeism and women will return to work sooner after maternity leave.
Expectations from family is another ball that career women have to juggle. Few allowances are made by family members and a professional woman is expected to manage all the domestic responsibilities and social appearances similar to a housewife, which puts a tremendous physical and emotional burden on most women.
Whilst most women were of unanimous opinion that balancing a career and managing things on the domestic side was not a bed of roses, yet most professional women did not want to give up their jobs. Sense of accomplishment, giving back to society and financial independence were some of the main reasons professional females listed as their motivation for continuing to work.
Although Pakistani society has a long way to go and it is more acceptable now for women to work alongside men, there is still a lot that needs to change to make it easier for women to pursue jobs in the same way that men do. Dr. Amina was of the opinion that our society needs to educate men to share household and childcare responsibilities in the same way that women are sharing the financial burden of running the household. Another solution given by Aliya, a marketing manager and mother of three, was that companies should be required by law to give six months paid maternity leave. Moreover, it should be made illegal to discriminate against women in any way, including pay, training opportunities and promotion prospects.HH
The writer is Managing Director, Pakistan ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) - affiliate of ASCD, USA
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