In Pakistan, a silent revolution unfolds daily. It is a revolution led not by fiery speeches or grand gestures but by the quiet determination of Pakistani working women. These women rise each day, facing a world rife with challenges that test their strength and resolve. Their daily life represents stories of relentless struggle against odds stacked high.
Even though female literacy rates and enrollment have steadily increased in Pakistan over the past two decades, our female labor force participation has never crossed a mere 24% (World Bank Data). Getting a decent enough job in Pakistan is difficult as it is, but it gets next to impossible for women. The female labor force participation rate I cited earlier is driven mainly by women working in agriculture, often as unpaid workers. Women who do manage to attain higher education are faced with the challenges of finding a safe workplace, the expectation of getting a good job or no job at all, and the rampant sexism that persists in the recruiting process for any workplace in Pakistan.
Even after all that struggle, if a woman does manage to get a decent enough job, she has to make her way through the daily struggles of reaching her workplace, making a name for herself by working at least twice as hard as her male colleagues, and balance her ‘home life’ alongside. We, as Pakistanis, love to club all the unpaid care work our mothers, sisters, and daughters do for the household as their ‘home life’ – a norm they are expected to live by irrespective of their employment status. Working mothers, a rare find in this country, face the brunt of this situation. While mothers are rarely ever preferred for any job, those who join the workforce are constantly pulled from the two sides of ‘work-life balance.’ For a Pakistani working mother, unfortunately, the ‘life’ in work-life balance only includes fulfilling the needs of her family and doing house chores, ensuring that her career aspirations never step on what the society expects of her. She must first be the perfect wife and mother and then a professional — an expectation we rarely have from our men.
Working mothers in Pakistan are the worst off when it comes to having a healthy ‘work-life balance.’ Balancing the demands of work and motherhood is an uphill battle for many Pakistani women. In most developing and developed countries, maternal employment is widely recognized as having positive effects, both on women's economic empowerment and on children's development. For instance, households led by working women in Bangladesh have shown a significant improvement in children’s educational and health outcomes. However, in Pakistan, the societal perception of a successful woman often necessitates that she is a perfect mother and wife alongside being an expert at her job, making the potential rewards negligible. Society often places undue pressure on women to be the primary caregivers, while the father's caregiver role is undervalued. This leads to a skewed distribution of responsibilities within households and perpetuates gender inequality.
The absence of support systems, both at home and at the workplace, makes it difficult for Pakistani women to excel in their careers. This lack of care support contributes to the gender gap in employment and economic opportunities. The absence of affordable and reliable daycare facilities often forces mothers to rely on extended family or make the heart-wrenching decision to leave their children in subpar care. Pakistan lags in providing supportive work policies for women. Maternity leave is often insufficient, and policies promoting work-life balance are scarce. Compared to many developed countries, Pakistan lacks a culture of daycare facilities within or near workplaces. This absence further hinders women's progress in their careers.
Transport and mobility are one of the key issues that also hinder women’s professional and social advancement in Pakistan. Most women cannot afford to have a car always at their disposal, and the public transport options they are left with are no less than a gamble. Every other day, we come across a new hashtag trending, a new case of another woman harassed or abused during her commute. To briefly describe, a working woman’s traveling experience in this country includes sending her live location and the tracking link to her family and close friends, tracking the directions through Google Maps to check if the driver’s on the right way, having a pepper spray or keys facing outwards held tightly all times, constantly checking the rearview mirror, and always double thinking if her attire is ‘appropriate.’ Traveling alone for a woman in this country includes nothing but a constant feeling of looming danger and anxiety. Because we all know, in the end, if anything does go wrong, she is the one who will be blamed for stepping out. Stepping out to exercise her fundamental rights.
The prevalence of workplace harassment plagues the lives of many Pakistani working women. Harassment takes various forms, from verbal abuse to unwanted advances, and it often goes unreported due to fear of repercussions at work. Most workplaces in Pakistan do not have a robust anti-harassment policy, and those that do lack the will to fairly and actively implement it. A majority of the female university graduates in Pakistan remain unemployed, a key reason being the lack of safe workplaces in the country.
Issues related to women's health, such as menstrual health, are often considered taboo topics in Pakistan. This cultural stigma leads to a lack of appropriate workplace policies that accommodate women. Without adequate healthcare support, women are unable to compete fairly with their male counterparts and thus often considered as a liability or less-productive hire.
Pakistan’s workplace culture and infrastructure are not designed to accommodate women. Most job roles in Pakistan are designed with men in mind, assuming that women cannot or should not take on certain positions. This mindset limits women's career choices and reinforces regressive gender stereotypes. Women who wish to have a successful career are expected to fulfill masculine roles by showcasing masculine traits and abandoning their feminine side at work. They are expected to live in a man’s world and bend backward just to fit into the roles that were always designed for men. Men with no domestic responsibilities and wives who are supposed to do the care work. Except that women do not have the same support and must commit to two roles simultaneously.
And it is about time we change that. The past year has been no less than a wake-up call for us as a nation while we were on the brink of bankruptcy and are still engulfed in an economic crisis. While many issues require attention to help Pakistan escape the vicious downward economic cycle it is stuck in, ignoring the needs of its female labor force is one of the gravest mistakes our policymakers can make right now.
Several structural and societal changes are necessary for Pakistan to empower its women and harness their full potential. It is essential that the table at which policies are made includes a fair representation of the women who will be subject to them.
Enabling and promoting women to occupy leadership positions across all levels, public or private, will help change workplace dynamics and foster a more egalitarian work culture. Supportive work policies for both parents, such as gender-neutral parental leaves that encourage shared responsibility for childcare, will help ease the burden on working mothers.
Women’s health has rarely ever received any attention while drafting workplace policies in most places. Like Japan and Indonesia, Pakistan can significantly benefit its female working population by mandating menstrual leaves.
It is extremely important that we provide women with safe transport options while also educating the masses and instilling values that curb the unfortunate culture of harassing and catcalling women.
Moreover, it is essential to mandate laws that allow enterprises only to continue functioning once they have introduced robust anti-harassment policies and show promise to implement them properly. We also need to change how most job roles are designed only to cater to the male demographic. Much of the world is moving towards flexible work arrangements, with an increasing acceptance of hybrid and remote work and more task-oriented jobs compared to hour-counted ones. Such work arrangements have so far proved to improve employees’ productivity across the board and appear to be a promising solution in this case as well.
Employers should embrace flexible work arrangements to make it a level playing field for both men and women while also accommodating the needs of working parents, allowing them to balance their personal and professional lives effectively.
Simply put, we cannot be a prosperous country or follow internationally mandated gender empowerment policies if we do not address our fundamental issues first. The journey of a Pakistani working woman is a testament to her resilience and determination. Though often filled with hardships, her life also narrates tales of hope, determination, and a spirit that refuses to be crushed by adversity. It is about time our society and the state step up and provide the support and opportunities women deserve, for only then can Pakistan truly progress toward a more inclusive and equal future.