Where’s the other half?

More and more women are breaking free of societal chains, yet many still remain weighed down by orthodox occupations

There are an estimated 3.6 billion women living on our planet at the moment, almost as many as men. They are everywhere: in our homes, in our lives, in the seat next to you, in the apartment across yours, in the park, buses, trains and aeroplanes.

So why is it that we see so few as our bosses, GMs and CEOs? A report by Pearl Initiative (PI) on professional women in Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) released in April 2015 revealed that although women almost matched men in population numbers, their contribution to the global workforce stood only at 32%. The report said only 12% of CEOs were women, only 17% acted as board members, and a meager 24% were found working in senior management positions.

According to a 2010 UN report, having women on the board lead to better decision making and better board governance, and such boards were found to be more innovative and likely to develop ground-breaking strategies. Gender balance at the senior level also lead to a better understanding of a company’s customers by boards, leading to a business edge. A McKinsey research cited by PI said corporations with the highest proportions of women outperformed by an average of 47% on return on equity and 55% on earnings before interest and tax.

But if such are the gains from having women in senior positions, why is it not happening on the ground?

Growth gridlocks

It is partly due to the invisible glass ceiling and partly due to women finding it hard to balance personal and professional responsibilities, especially in GCC and South Asia, where many women still sacrifice their professional gains in order to fit in roles some societies traditionally task them with.

Sara* is a Pakistani doctor married in to a British-Pakistani family in London. She has two children, a son aged seven and a two–year-old daughter. “I was really sad over leaving Pakistan, mainly because of moving away from my family, but also because I could not continue with my work as a medical practitioner in Lahore anymore,” she says.

“It was a great experience,” she adds. “Working, helping others, serving in field hospitals, learning new things every day, it was what I always wanted. I had planned on enrolling for a specialization, but got married and had to move to England.”

Sara said she tried taking the proficiency test in the UK to continue with her work, but the birth of her son meant she had to reserve her energies for the child. “I've been a mother ever since. It’s the best job in the world, but I still long for the time I spent as a doctor in Lahore looking after the sick. I hope I can reconnect with my profession someday,” she smiles.

Like Sara in London, there are many around the world who fail to strike a work-life balance. In the GCC for example, 34% of the women questioned by PI said they did not wish to sacrifice family and children for profession, while 49% said the same was actually a hindrance in getting ahead in their professions. There were other factors such as the inability to relocate and taking decisions in favor of the spouse’s career. The report also said that 29% of working women refused promotions because they demanded a substantial sacrifice in work-life balance.

Apart from domestic pressures, workplace marginalization still holds many women back. The PI data reveals that 80% of women in the GCC felt that simply being a woman put them at a disadvantage at work, while 75% believed their advancement was not as quick as men’s. These are large numbers, considering that many cities in the GCC, like Dubai and Doha, aim at becoming global cities in the near future. Women feeling held down by their gender would only mean underutilized resources and opportunities lost for not only the individuals involved, but for the GCC and South Asian states as well.

Silver lining

However, there remain several glimmers of hope. Bayut.com, UAE’s leading property portal, got in touch with several female real estate agents working in the sector who said the conditions were heading towards meritocracy.

“A majority of clients respond according to your knowledge and behavior. Investors invest in professionalism and presentations, not gender,” said Marcella Harrera, an agent with Driven Properties, Dubai. “I don’t necessarily think being a woman has made my career any more easy or difficult compared to a man’s,” Marcella said.

However, Bayut said it observed in some cases that women still had to work a little harder to be taken seriously, especially when dealing with clients from cultures where females worked in more traditional professions like teaching, medicine and nursing, etc.

“When I first contacted a real estate firm in Dubai for some investment advice, I was a little surprised when I was greeted by a woman. I thought the agents were blowing me off, but the deeper I got in to the conversation with the agent, the more I was impressed with her knowledge and her informed recommendations,” Ahmed*, an investment banker in Lahore told Zameen.com, Bayut’s sister concern in Pakistan. “Frankly, I had never before come across a female real estate agent in Pakistan,” he added.

Just like in other parts of the world, women in GCC feel ambitious and more than half surveyed by PI wanted to grow into senior roles. Although Bahrain, Kuwait and UAE topped the list of GCC countries with women in leading legislative and official roles, women in organisational boards made meager numbers.

The PI said even though three quarters of the respondents felt supported by their families, traditional role models were still a blockade and social attitudes were changing too slowly.

Way ahead

As most women fail to grow professionally due to domestic obligations, employers could help high achievers maintain that work-life balance by offering flexible hours, which 51% of the women in the PI survey seconded. The notion of females being favored can be shunned by extending the same facility to male staff, ushering a sense of equality across the board. Plus, focusing on output rather than input can bring a win-win solution for both the employee and the employer.

Organisations should make pay, promotions and remuneration policies equal for professionals of both genders, so that women do not feel marginalized and end up quitting.

Women also need to fight for themselves and not feel bogged down by their gender. For example, 10 percent of the PI survey respondents said they refused a promotion as less deserving colleagues were also given a promotion, while 9% said promotion not being in line with their expectations was their reason for rejecting one.

Cases like these are an unfortunate reality of the working world, and the phenomenon has been felt by almost all workers at some point in their careers, irrespective of being a man or a woman. If the feeling is such, women should not get disheartened but must prove the management wrong with their hard work and finer output. The strategy works well, it has been observed, and authorities do realize your potential in the long run.

Changing social perceptions through education is also extremely important. Coursework and syllabi in more traditional societies, as well as in developed ones, must promote the professional acumen and achievements of women. It should highlight female role models, high achievers and trend-setters like Zaha Hadid and world leaders like Aung Suu Kyi so that the coming generations do not feel intimidated or surprised to see women in leading political, business and professional roles.

Women who matter in their respective professions must also do their part to alter the societal ceilings and help other women up the professional ladder. They must speak up for equality and opportunities for professional women, because theirs are the voices that carry the most weight. They must share their achievements to motivate and failures to guide the younger lot of women as they head out to make their mark in the professional sphere.

With everyone playing their part and setting in motion the right interventions, the world as we know it can become more just and equitable. We can make women more confident, more able, more driven, much more of a resource in the global economy and much more of a woman if they feel valued for their abilities, not their gender.

*Names have been changed in some instances to maintain privacy.

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