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The fifty percent – Fahmida Khatun

Published in The Daily Star on Monday, 3 August 2015.

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The fifty percent

Dr Fahmida Khatun

fahmida-khatun-column-feat3Bangladeshi women are increasingly getting into high value professions. During the last two decades, many have joined non-traditional and emerging service sectors such as banking, insurance, telecommunications, hotel and restaurants, transport and real estate services. Higher education and skills have contributed to this rise. However, the number of such professionals is far below the number of female university graduates. Nowadays, girls outperform boys in most departments at universities. But we don’t see a similar trend in the job market. Many women don’t opt for employment at all and prefer to be homemakers. Some take up jobs but quit after a while to perform family responsibilities. Some return to the job market once their children are grown up. But by then their colleagues have gone far ahead in their career path. So there is a natural process of elimination of potential good women workforce. And then those who choose to continue with their jobs, they have to juggle roles at office and home. Both roles are so demanding that they end up working much harder than men.

It isn’t quite right to say that just because of these hurdles women don’t get to top positions. It is also the attitude and a deliberate act of the society to situate women in a particular frame. They are not viewed the same way as men in the organisational pipeline. Many a times, assumptions, biases and prejudices work against women to hold a leadership role. This may happen unconsciously as well. Irrespective of their capability, it would be perceived by the office that a woman may not be able to deliver the task. This immediately lowers her level of confidence. Sometimes, the management assumes, with what they perceive as sympathy, that women won’t be able to accept new responsibility, or take on a new role or even handle a promotion. The pretence that they are considerate to her predicament is only to undermine her potential. When a meeting is set up towards the end of office hours, or a breakfast meeting with a visiting high official is scheduled, nobody really thinks about their female colleagues.

Another way of undermining women’s confidence is to ignore their insights. In meetings, female employees don’t speak up as much as men do. A male colleague would draw much more attention by saying the same thing in a louder and more forceful voice. Men would also have mentors both within and outside the office. But, in case of a woman, it isn’t a desirable thing in our socio-cultural setting. Her family may not like it. People around her, including both male and female colleagues, would talk about it. When a man does well in his career, all credit goes solely to him. When a woman does well, it is because X or Y has helped her, she got a break and of course, her family is so supportive. Perception also makes us think that when a man can’t complete his work on time, it is because he is overworked and when a woman can’t meet the deadline, she just isn’t prioritising her work or isn’t good enough to do the job.

Have you considered how much time a man spends in socialising and networking? What does a woman do after office hours? Her time would be dedicated exclusively for the family. She has neither time nor social approval for professional networking. For some professions, this is quite important though. In the West, many women these days try to network after office hours to catch up with their male colleagues and to explore business opportunities for their companies.

But this isn’t a viable solution for our women to a problem which is deep rooted. This is the mindset which doesn’t keep in mind that a woman can be equally competent for a decision making position. That is why, even in government bodies and committees, we see that there aren’t any women at all or only one woman is selected solely to fulfill the so-called ‘female quota’. As if her credentials are lesser than her male counterparts and she can only compete with women. In reality, her qualifications would be the most robust one. She had to be twice as good as a man to get there. She has studied the same curriculum, sat for the same exam under the same board and excelled. There was no quota for female students in the exam. She works in the same field and has equal or even more expertise than her male colleagues. But she can’t be considered a professional for any such position without her female identity.

The glass ceiling exists everywhere. Breaking through the glass ceiling would require courage and sacrifice. Even Pepsico’s Chief Executive Officer Indra Nooyi feels that “women can’t have it all” as they struggle to perform within and outside home. Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg advises women not to leave their profession before it is time to leave. It takes away the enthusiasm and spirit. We also have our own inspirational women in government offices and in corporate, private and non-government sectors who stayed the course till the end and succeeded. We deserve to have many more of them.

The writer is Research Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.

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