Women Leadership in Pakistan – A Change in the Making

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.

In Pakistan, the low literacy rate, especially for girls, is alarming. That is compounded by a high dropout rate from schools. According to the Population Census the current female literacy stands at 36%. Astonishingly, starting at 33% enrolment at the primary school, only 6.59% enroll at the high school level, reducing further to 1.2% at the University Degree level! This reduces the chances of females emerging in the leadership role both in the political structure as well as entrepreneurs and senior executives.

Pakistan is a country of 160 million people, more than half of the population’s gender is female. It 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.

Nevertheless, Pakistan is slowly developing women leadership. Earlier this year, Dr. Fehmida Mirza of Pakistan People’s Party was elected the first woman speaker of the National Assembly. Recently, Ms. Nasrin Haq became the first woman to head the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) as its chief executive. She is the first civilian as KPT chief in 18 years.

Moreover, in November 2007 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 that, in January 2008, Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA) appointed Jehan Ara as the first paid woman CEO. Notably, Jehan Area was previously elected as President of P@SHA for two consecutive terms.

Since the beginning of its program in Pakistan, CIPE has been advocating to bring professional and independent CEOs to business associations. This paradigm shift from the male monopoly of running business associations to the appointment of two women CEOs shows a shift in the mind-set. Although bringing the same approach in business associations throughout Pakistan is still a challenge, nevertheless, the positive vibes are now being felt.

Recognizing the importance of the appointment of women CEOs, CIPE interviewed both ladies to understand what the acceptability was within the membership and how challenging the job has been.  The videos are available on YouTube:

Unjela Siddiqi – First woman CEO of a business association in Pakistan 
Jehan Ara – First woman president of a business association in Pakistan

Published Date: June 24, 2008