Pakistan’s problem with women in power


It has been four decades since the phrase “glass ceiling” was coined to describe the invisible barrier that prevents so many women from rising to the upper tier of management in an organisation.

However, it seems that the women who do manage to rise to the top, have another monster to tackle. Studies show that men are more likely to perceive female managers as strident, abrasive, aggressive and even emotional– a problem that powerful women in Pakistan have faced repeatedly.

“Men generally get annoyed with female bosses because they believe women are not good leaders or are ‘weak’,” elucidated Irtifa Nasir, an assistant professor at a local university. However, according to her, this perception is not gender-specific. “Someone like me generally intimidates people, regardless of gender, subordinate or not. It is just a personality trait,” she says.

“I am not sure if this is intimidation— it is more like undervaluing female leadership,” she continued. “Men think they know better, thus the feeling of insecurity.”

Men disregarding women bosses has a lot to do with social conditioning or fear of the unknown, according to Maryam Piracha, Editor-in-Chief of a prominent literary magazine in Pakistan. “Men are used to being in charge and, in my experience, they don’t know what to do with an assertive woman,” she further said.

While women are generally underrepresented in leadership positions in Pakistan, they are now more openly accepted at middle and lower management levels, according to a 2015 study by the International Labour Organisation.

“I have actually found men to be supportive towards women who are at the middle management levels,” said Ammara Farooq, a social entrepreneur and Founder, Seplaa Enterprises.  “However, this helpful attitude of men surprisingly falters once women begin climbing the leadership ladder.”

Studies suggest that as a woman climbs the corporate ladder, she needs to adopt an assertive behaviour in order to be taken seriously by her co-workers, especially men.

“It is true that in order to be successful, a female manager in an organisation needs to be more assertive,” said Director Research Dr Faiza Ali, an assistant professor at a local university. “And for many people, assertiveness is a masculine trait.”

However, this is not happening in Pakistan only but even in the western countries, said Dr Faiza. “One Stanford University study labelled some women as, “aggressive, assertive, and confident” – whereas others as “acting like a lady”. The language of the research paper itself seemed to be reinforcing gender roles,” she continued.

Research shows that women generally avoid leadership roles for fear of being labelled as ‘bossy’ or ‘over-assertive’.

According to Maryam however, there is a difference between being assertive and being “over assertive”.

“One is exercising your right as a human being to be taken seriously, and the second is a more serious show of power”. She said that women should do as they deem fit in order to move ahead in their career, but should always stay true to who they are, a fact corroborated by Ammara as well.

“Women just need to create their own space if they want to be successful, they should not change how they behave in order to be accepted,” said Ammara.

Most of these women, however, were of the view that this could all be a part of a workplace evolution currently underway, which may result in changing the workplace dynamics for good.

“Workplace dynamics are just a reflection of broader societal dynamics,” said Irtifa.

“Society is evolving; men are [however reluctantly] letting go of their ‘God-given’ right to leadership. Women are being accepted as equals in our circles. This change will reflect in the workplace too eventually,” she stated.

However, according to Dr Faiza, despite all the positive changes in terms of institutional pressures and from a societal perspective, we still have a long way to go before achieving a workplace culture where women managers will be as acceptable as their men counterparts.

So how do women managers stay strong and in control in this environment, given a much narrower band of acceptable behaviour?

They can start by revamping their communication style for one, resisting the extremes of acting either like a bully or a doormat, said Mahrukh Agha, vice president of a multinational organisation.

“Women should embrace their natural abilities of management through collaboration, team building, counselling, encouragement and ability to connect with people on a human level,” Mahrukh said.

Irtifa, however, was of the view that the problem can somewhat be controlled by women’s financial independence. “The inequality or ‘reporting hierarchy’ has always been due to financial control by men.” According to her when society begins evolving, workplaces will evolve too.

“Just like that, media’s depiction of women will evolve and feed into the new evolved narrative,” she said.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap findings, there are still another 200 years to accomplish gender parity. But it is significant to keep the discussion alive and #PressforProgress, which is the theme for the upcoming International Women’s Day that is being celebrated on March 8.

According to surveys, Pakistan still has a long way to go before women in senior management are accepted wholeheartedly, but a crack in the glass ceiling in one place could very well just help everyone else.

“Show. Be assertive. Use your intelligence. Push back when you meet resistance. And be respectful. Women don’t need to act like men and turn into aggressors; we’re better than that,” concluded Maryam.