Sunday, July 25, 2010

THE 'NOT SO' LESSER HALF

By Andleeb Abbas

A working woman carries a negative perception in society, especially if she is a businesswoman. Parents feel that her chances of attracting a good marital prospect go down because she is not perceived as good material for focusing on the house and family

The privilege, or peril, of being a woman depends not only on the culture in which you live, but also the beliefs that you have nurtured within. Women are equal to men in rights but unequal to men in approach and abilities. That does not mean there is a superiority contest but simply a difference of strengths, which is actually complementary rather than supplementary.

Any country, especially a developing country, needs contribution by both men and women to really emerge out of the status of the nations not really there. In this context Pakistan has a lot to make up for. The Economic Intelligence Unit, which publishes an annual report on the women’s economic opportunity index, has placed Pakistan at 108 out of a total of 113 countries. As usual, all other South Asian countries are better placed than Pakistan with India at 84 and Bangladesh at 104.

One of the basic reasons is access to education. Education improves a woman’s prospects of finding employment or initiating a business venture. Even in this category, i.e. of education and training, women in Pakistan stand at 23rd place compared to India at 11 and Sri Lanka at 18. Mere numbers are also not true representatives of the real story behind the non-contribution of this sector. The type of education and the attitude towards the purpose of education and training, both in the rural and urban areas, also strongly determines whether this facility will actually activate women in the country to become a productive part of the workforce or not.

However, having a more educated populace is not a guarantee of more female participation in the economy. Many studies have proved that poor people are unwilling to invest in female education because the return on this investment is not very fruitful. Poverty is a factor that does affect the decision of sending children to school but those who send their daughters to charity schools often complain about the discouraging environment of these schools and the unproductive learning in them. Most poor parents feel that sending their daughters to school actually has an unsettling effect on them not only financially but psychologically as well. They are sent to school instead of working at home or in the fields and, thus, there is an opportunity cost. The education they get rarely enhances their chances of earning better and instead creates frustration as they find themselves to be misfits in their homes and culture. Thus the unrest created by the awareness of a better world but the inability and lack of opportunity to get to that better world make parents feel that perhaps ignorance really is bliss.

Here it is important to distinguish between the formal and informal employment market. The females of the rural areas may not be doing a formally documented and structured job but many of them are taking care of the cattle at home or working in the fields to support their families. Even in the cities, the poor family female is employed in households carrying out mostly menial chores. Most of the time, you may find that the male members are unemployed while their female counterparts are constantly working. Another strange phenomenon is that, in cities, where the education levels are much higher, the corresponding levels of female employment and entrepreneurship are very low. The proportion of females going for higher education has been increasing. In professional fields like medicine and business, increasingly we see female enrolment going up, but does this registration enhancement actually translate into a practical productive workforce increase is a question that ends up with a negative answer. What are the reasons for this discrepancy amongst professional studies and practical economic participation? Many studies have pointed out that cultural factors are hindering female employment or entrepreneurship opportunities. A working woman carries a negative perception in society, especially if she is a businesswoman. Parents feel that her chances of attracting a good marital prospect go down because she is not perceived as good material for focusing on the house and family. This perception is also fuelled by the fact that a male chauvinistic culture still persists where an aware and independent woman is seen as a challenge to male superiority and is thus shunned in preference for the meek and demure damsel in distress who is totally dependent on the whims and fancies of the in-laws and husband.

Despite these cultural and economic constraints, one party responsible for the low economic participation is females themselves. The prevailing mindset of many of our educated and blessed females is still of waiting for things to happen rather than making them happen. It is astonishing how girls outshine boys in medicine, in business, and in media studies. But it is equally astonishing how few of them are ready to go through the rigour of the discipline or struggle required to make it in practical life. Most of them blame the environment but they are to be blamed themselves as well. They want to be given equal status with their male counterparts but, when it comes to workloads and timings, they want to be given preferential treatment. Many of those who are working do not have a serious career-oriented approach. Either work is a good pastime or just an economic necessity. The ability to look at work as an ingrained opportunity to learn, develop, earn and discover one’s passion is very rare, with the result that many of them end up conjuring excuses for their preference of not having the courage and conviction to balance life both at home and in the office.

In most emerging countries like India and China, women contribute substantially to the economy. We, as a country, must own up that we have not provided enough opportunities for our women to really educate themselves and become more productive. We, as a culture, must own up that we are not ready to accept women in the non-traditional role of an independent decision maker. We, as women, must own up that we have not broken free of our mental shackles and made an honest effort to really contribute meaningfully. By owning up and acting on these three imperatives we can definitely challenge the best in the world.

The writer is a consultant and can be reached at andleeb@franklincoveysouthasia.com
Courtesy DAILY TIMES July 25, 2010

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