Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Women in Leadership Roles and Nay-sayers

This is an era for women in Pakistan to create history. It started with Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto to not just become the first women head of government of Pakistan but also the first woman prime minister of Muslim World. Treading on the heels of Benazir Bhutto, six more Muslim head of states were produced comprising Mame Madior Boye of Senegal, Tansu Ciller of Turkey, Kaqusha Jashari of Kosovo, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia and Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh.

Then we heard about Dr Shamshad Akhter becoming the first woman governor of State Bank of Pakistan. Yet another history was written when Pakistan’s premier business association, The Overseas Chamber of Commerce & Industry, appointed its first ever women CEO Unjela Siddiqi, followed by the appointment of Jehan Ara, the first paid CEO of Pakistan Software Houses Association. Last but not the least, Mrs. Nasrin Haq has become the first woman to head Karachi Port Trust as Chairperson. The story about installing women in high-powered decision making positions thus goes on and on. It appears as if Pakistan has become conscious of the power of women and hence bringing the female talent to the fore to head various institutions of significance.

Although the recent history of most Muslim countries points to a poor track record in engaging women as productive contributors to their economic and social prosperity, some recent trends point to a positive shift. Some leading women executives serve as role models and inspiration including Guler Sabanci, Chairman, Sabanci Holding (Turkey), Nahed Taher, Founder and Chief Executive, Maha Al-Ghunaim, Founder, Vice Chairman and Managing Director, Global Investment House (Kuwait), Lubna Olayan, Chief Executive, Olayan Financing (Saudi Arabia.), Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE Minister of Economy and Planning, and Chief Executive Officer of Tejari (an online B2B marketplace).

Pakistan is widely recognized that although female participation in the paid labor force is increasing, it is still at a low level. According to Federal Bureau of Statistics, Pakistan’s labor force survey, only 0.3% employers are female.

Notwithstanding the huge women population in Pakistan with a flagrantly paltry female workforce, we are indeed changing—from the notion that women got married, had children and stayed home. Still we have a long way to go to ensure the best talent makes it into leadership positions. Women in leadership roles continue to be an important topic for top professionals and women themselves. Not just a matter of fairness - it makes good business sense to retain and promote the best talent, irrespective of gender.

Through and through in a male dominated society like Pakistan, for women acquiring leadership roles, is like a hard nut to crack. Such women, who acquire top slots in organizations, have to confront a perfervid repugnance from male peers. Despite Mrs. Nasrin Haq represents an acronym of extraordinary academic credentials and well practiced knowledge in road, rail and sea transportation, a campaign of vilification and contempt has been launched against her.

Verily, Nasrin Haq must be confident in her leadership abilities, not letting nay-sayers stand in her way. She can take the lead from Fran Keeth, the CEO of Shell Chemical, who faced incredible resistance from executive officers at her company, but she just kept doing the best job she could, and doing it with a smile. It took her some doing to get herself accepted and earn her spurs. She eventually became accepted.

Women leadership can also learn from Carleton Fiorina who was chairperson of HP—world’s second-largest computer maker. With close to $50 billion in annual revenue, it's one of the 20 largest companies in the world. Carleton Fiorina was crowned the most powerful woman in American business by Fortune magazine. She also played a critical role in the spin-off of Lucent Technologies Inc. in 1996. Taking over at HP in 1999, she was thought by all to be the one who would rescue the faltering computer giant—and she gracefully did it.

Nasrin Haq needs to break down the glass ceiling right through using leadership skills that have taken her to the very top of the KPT. Indeed women such as Nasrin Haq have beaten the odds by delivering above average results, their industry knowledge and superior leadership abilities.

The critics of Nasrin Haq should get to know that full participation of women in decision-making processes has been recognized as a human right in international human rights conventions and global policy frameworks and as critical for the achievement of gender equality.

The outcome of the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action, considered the inequality between men and women in the sharing of power and decision-making at all levels as one of the critical areas of concern for the empowerment of women. It also noted that women's equal participation in decision-making is not only a precondition for justice or democracy but is also a necessary condition for ensuring that women's interests and rights are taken into account. Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of gender perspectives at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved.

In the 2005 World Summit, Member States reaffirmed that the full and effective implementation of the goals and objectives of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was an essential contribution to achieving the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals. To put this commitment into practice will require that women have equal opportunities to participate fully in all decision-making processes.

The dilemmas faced by women in terms of assuming leadership roles, climbing the corporate ladder and contributing to decision-making processes in the organization are, anchored in the socio-cultural context as well as in the maps and definitions they carry from the past.

Despite their comparable qualifications, however, female managers are not entering the highest leadership positions at the same rate as their male counterparts. At the start of the 1990s, only five of the Fortune 500 industrial and service companies had female CEOs, and of the highest paid officers and directors of the 1,300 largest industrial and service companies, women made up less than 0.5%. The numbers have improved, but another survey found only 11% of Fortune 500 board members were women. These statistics raise the question of why women have encountered limited access to senior leadership roles. Perceptions, rather than reality, may be the answer.

Just as successful managers are defined in masculine terms, perceived leader effectiveness is also associated with male characteristics. Masculinity in male and female leaders is perceived by all subordinates as effective, whereas female leaders displaying feminine characteristics are not seen as effective. Especially in cases where they occupy highly male-dominated leadership roles, women are vulnerable to “prejudiced evaluations and lowered effectiveness.” In leadership positions that are rarely held by women, and that perhaps as a result become strongly associated with male characteristics, women may need to display masculine characteristics to be seen as effective. In fact, current advice to women adopts this strategy. Women need to be assertive. Men in the business world often misjudge women's behavior style ... as an in ability to lead.

We recognize that women leaders in the public sector face the same challenges as their counterparts in the private sector in terms of breaking through the class ceiling. The limited career opportunities is an issue, the constraint of traditional gender roles is another.

In keeping with the quote of Dr. Shamshad Akhter, “Even in traditional societies, the widening of women’s horizons and the promotion of their confidence and social awareness can facilitate women’s involvement in community affairs and even in the leadership of their communities.” She also said, “Don’t just promote women for the sake of promoting women. Promote competent professionals. By design you will promote women who have contributed substantially to the good work.” Dr. Shamshad Akhter has always moved up through merit and being a female did not really help her to get to the giddy heights of glory, for she probably deserved them by virtue of her commitment and hard work.

The challenges to increasing female participation in mainstream economic activity, and the creation of leadership within women entrepreneurs, are manifold. These challenges range from social taboos; conservative lobbies; lack of access to education, information, and finance to discriminatory behaviors by male counterparts, severely inhibiting the ability of women to develop leadership skills and to participate in the policymaking process. Yet another complexity is the non-existent gender focused institutions such as women chambers, which generally act as facilitators in networking, mentorship, and learning opportunities.

The corporate sector of Pakistan stands to benefit from these trends in increasing and improving their productivity as well as applying diversity in their capabilities. In more conservative societies, entrepreneurs stand to gain by engaging women in a culturally sensitive way and leveraging technologies such as the internet to enhance their participation in the economy and society at large.

The Government also needs to recognize the key role women can play in communities and society at large. We want to see more women in key decision-making positions. This is crucial if we are to ensure we have policies that deliver for women. (