Surprise. Pakistan isn’t that bad a place for working women.

An article popped up all over my Twitter feed this morning on how working women are treated shabbily by Pakistani organizations which, according to the writer, do nothing to accommodate pregnant women. Since it was being tweeted and retweeted so many times,  I started reading, the feminist in me all revved up because this is a very serious issue globally.   After all, the negative title of this article can get anyone preemptively angry. And being the person who is continually ranting about various women’s issues in the workplace much to the annoyance of my predominantly male colleagues, this was something I could definitely get behind.woman at work

Except as I read on, I just couldn’t relate to it. Now I have been pregnant while I was employed, but I had some super awesome flexible working advantages, so you may say my experience doesn’t count. And I am aware of the dangers of extrapolating from a single person narrative and making it out to be a universal experience. But then at my age, almost everyone in my social circle has at least one kid, and so I thought of their experiences. Still didn’t find anything to be angry about there. Then I thought of my mother who being a government-school teacher had babies in the 1970s and 80s. My mum’s friends? Relatives? Nope, not a single case came to mind of a woman who was back at work 10 days after giving birth or lost her job after she got pregnant.

And then I got a bit peeved. I’m really not someone who likes to think everything is fine and dandy in Pakistan, because most things really aren’t. Crimes against women and gender inequality are very serious problems there. But when it comes to opportunities for women in the workplace and the flexibility and respect given to them, things really aren’t that deplorable as made out to be.

Women are occasionally confronted by sleazeballs here and there but I do think that’s everywhere in the world. I’ve come across a fair number of sleazeballs, but as miserable as that experience can be, you just have to keep your head up high and get on with it. And this is not unique to Pakistan for sure.

But coming back to maternity leave and the rights of pregnant women. Yes, Telenor has introduced a really generous maternity leave policy which makes me really envious of women working there, and can I get a job there? And at least in Pakistan, there is no other organization offering the same level of generosity from what I know. But not being equally generous in no way equates to them being exploitative. If you are only aware of two organizations that offer longer maternity leave or have onsite daycare facilities, then that’s sadly rather limited.

I mean if you are trying to raise awareness of an issue, at least bother to check facts.

What Women Get

Legally, Pakistani employers are only required to provide six-weeks of paid maternity leave. Which after having had a baby, I agree is too little. You don’t even emerge out of the sleep deprived, shattered nerves, new parent blur until around 10 weeks. But even those six weeks is something, compared to what new moms in the US get. If you follow online mommy groups and blogs, you will realize that those crazy women actually envy Pakistan for their maternity leave policy (!). Let’s keep Europe out of this however. While their leave policies are ideal, women still grapple with other inevitable issues when they do go back to the workplace a year or so  later.

Several organizations do provide paid leave beyond six weeks so many women get lucky that way. Three months paid leave seems to be the norm at banks where friends and family work. After which you can tap into your sick leaves allowance. Many organizations also offer unpaid leaves for varying duration. I, for instance, was on a six-month unpaid sabbatical. Government employees can take even longer time off as unpaid leave, those lucky things. Many large organizations, private and, shockingly for those unaware, government (such as the State Bank of Pakistan) have onsite daycare facilities where working mothers can leave their children.

Now if you want to hoard your leave allowance and go back to work 10 days after giving birth instead of maxing out your leave allowance, isn’t there something wrong with your own priorities? Or you have one evil manager in which case your job isn’t worth all the money in the world.

Which takes me to the issue of flexibility. Flexible working is becoming popular globally, and this is true for Pakistan as well. Three years ago I may have been an anomaly with my work-from-home, work-from-another-city, show-up-only-when-necessary privileges. But it is slowly spreading. It all depends on your field and nature of work of course. Not every role is suitable for telecommuting, but for those which can be managed without showing your face at the office for a set number of hours each day, individual employers are beginning to offer that flexibility. My husband’s ex-workplace in the tech sector had women doing the same thing as me, managing kids and home while working from another city. Yes, in Pakistan. Look around you, talk to people and you will hear of more and more women doing the same.

As much as I used to love bringing up gender differences in various areas at work and boring everyone around me, I have to admit that women are given a lot more flexibility even at the more traditional organizations. It’s generally the women leaving earlier, promptly at 5.30 because they have commitments at home, or in a large number of cases, because they are women and people are just nice to them. People mostly aren’t nasty to you because of your gender and hold their tongue around you, however physically painful that is for them. Women are generally not expected to stay back at work late like their male colleagues. I can vouch for that because every time I stayed back later than 7 pm, I would let everyone around me know what a huge favour I was doing them. I was annoying that way. I mean if people are nice enough to put up with your whining, why wouldn’t you do it?

One thing that did strike a chord with me was this:

“They over perform, over compensate and over deliver to stay in the game.”

There’s a lot to be said there. More on this later because it’s a separate issue.

The Employer’s End of Maternity Leave

Employers who do offer generous maternity leave are basically doing it because it makes business sense to them. Better working conditions and benefits WILL attract the best employees. Their best female employees will return to them after they have children which means they do not lose a good employee. And it’s definitely good PR. More employers need to realize the benefits in this for them and get their act together.

But there is business to be done. Employees missing for too long can become disruptive. And in their long absence, employers will need to find substitutes. Those brought in on maternity cover will integrate and it won’t be so easy to let them go when the person on leave returns after many months. Women who return after a long maternity leave often find their role is now diminished or nonexistent because things have changed. But can you really blame the employer? They have a business to run after all.  Even with the best intentions on the part of the employer, it is a complex situation.

Personally, even a six-month leave wouldn’t have been enough for me. It would have been great, yes, but leaving a baby behind to go back to work, is also hard at six months and not just at six-weeks. Probably just ever so slightly easier. But I knew that even with access to daycare facilities or even family to take care of the baby while I’m away, I’m just not ready to leave my child and go back to work this soon. And I can’t even reasonably expect an employer to commit to having me back at the same position many months in future when I feel ready. If you personally choose to set your career aside for a while to raise a child which can’t be done within the bounds of maternity leave, it would be too entitled to label all organizations as exploitative.

And back to the Pakistani working woman’s situation.

So really, Pakistani women don’t have it that bad in the workplace. Whether you are married or single or have one kid or five, women are genuinely respected, their individual needs considered and accommodated as far as it makes business sense. It may not be a part of your written employment contract, but you get many unwritten benefits and support. Not everywhere, not by everyone, but in a considerable number of places.

I do agree that this is probably not true for “seth-structuredcompanies or manufacturing and industry workers  as the writer mentions, and their rights are something I can definitely get behind.

But for those of us with comfortable office jobs, for us privileged ones, we are thankfully doing quite well actually. Not much to complain about. Right there in Pakistan.





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