Arshia, Head of HR at a leading Pakistani company, Engro Fertilizers – has it been a long journey?
Arshia Ahmad Saqib: Well, it has been 20 years now; my career journey, like most, came with its twists and turns, but I still regard it as truly fabulous. I have had the opportunity to work in diverse industries – FMCG, Automotive Engineering, Telecom, Hospitality, and a Financial Institution. It was all about new job roles, new locations, new businesses, new functions, and new cultures, and in each of these opportunities, I had the chance to learn new skills and capabilities that then became useful for the next role.
My advice to young women out there would be: always be open to something new and be willing to take risks. Secondly, please never shy away from asking for responsibility. You will never get it until you ask for it! And third, you must deliver results. – you really cannot get anywhere without it. All this will help you build your own personal brand and position you well for long-term success!
Were there any personal glass ceilings that you had to face?
Arshia Ahmad Saqib: Well, having been born and bred in Pakistan, I never held my background or my circumstances responsible for any wins or losses in my career. I believe some of my biggest challenges were personal and it was ‘self-belief that helped me unlock my potential. While there is no denying the fact that societal norms and, in some cases, even corporate cultures, are responsible for holding women back, I strongly feel that sometimes we are the biggest barrier to our progression.
I think that as women, we do hold the power to enhance our careers to a level that matches our ambition. So, it is not only for the organizations or society to improve for the needle to move. It is also for women to shatter their own personal glass ceilings to truly make progress – after all, we must all do our part.
What are the specific challenges that women face in the workplace?
Arshia Ahmad Saqib: Women face a lot of challenges at the workplace – the most entrenched would be unconscious gender bias which remains a daunting roadblock and perhaps the one that requires the most work. Then there are others such as lack of powerful women role models at the workplace, sponsorship from male colleagues, and flexible work arrangements.
A lot of women enter the labor force as professionals in Pakistan – but at two points we see the biggest drops – first after marriage and then when they have their children. Generally, Pakistani companies are not set up to handle women in the workforce – you have continued through both these transitions – what enabled that?
Arshia Ahmad Saqib: Pakistan, unfortunate as it is, still stands at the bottom as far as women participation in the workforce is concerned. The increase in economic pressures over time has led to an increase in the participation statistics as working is no longer just an ‘option’, it is a ‘requirement’. We still see women expected to maintain household and workplace equilibrium as unpaid care work and domestic duties shall fall in their laps.
In my case, I never regarded myself as a superwoman – I think the biggest mistake that we make is that we try to do “everything’ when we cannot. I always knew it was humanly impossible, so I focused on the things that were most important, and I ensured that I always maintain a ‘can-do’ attitude.
I feel that this is the one thing that has truly helped me reach where I am today – the belief that I am capable and can manage! I am also lucky to have worked with progressive employers, who enabled me to strike a balance between my personal and professional life. At the end of the day, you need both the ‘right attitude’ and an ‘enabling environment’ to succeed in your career.
How does being a ‘female’ head of function add to your work-life challenges? Has there been a trade-off?
Arshia Ahmad Saqib: Juggling between personal and professional life is definitely challenging and can never be comfortable – but then isn’t growth defined by moving away from your comfort zone? There are many tradeoffs in the form of family emergencies, missed school events, crisis situations at work… the list is endless.
But, when these challenges are taken up with determination for the greater good, no one stops a woman from succeeding in any stage of life. See, it is important to learn how to manage time, focus on the big picture, and being intentional about your career and family aspirations. When you have a goal in mind, everything else falls into place.
Have there been times when you were not able to manage the two? What happened and how did you overcome it?
Arshia Ahmad Saqib: I personally feel that every leader – be it a man or a woman – has had to face difficult work-life tradeoffs. Unfortunately, women are often still judged for prioritizing career over family. For a woman to recognize her leadership ambition, particularly in our society, it requires making a conscious and effortful choice about what she will become, what she will give up, and the criticisms she will face. In my case, I did not always get this choice correct but I learned over time how to make it work for myself.
We celebrated every birthday of my children with family and friends, but it might not have been on their actual birth date. When my children were little, my spouse was very helpful in all aspects of work and family. I also had a support network to help me through the time when we were both away. However, I prioritized family events and made sure not to miss these important occasions. Again, you make conscious choices to make it work for you.
How can the work environment generally be made more favorable towards women in the workplace?
Arshia Ahmad Saqib: Gender equality and getting more women into leadership roles have been trending topics for quite some time now. While it is important for women to lean in to fix these issues, the organizations also need to take some serious and conscious steps to address the situation. The single most powerful thing an organization can do to promote more women leaders is to create a culture of “Conscious Inclusion” – building the desire, insight, and capacity of people to make decisions. Creating an inclusive environment where everyone wants to continue working is about more than just diversity policies and setting gender-based hiring targets.
It is an ongoing environment where everyone brings their whole self to work each day and feels valued, heard, and able to make an impact while progressing with their careers. I would also like to call out the line management to take a closer look at the norms around flexibility for their female team members. In particular, there is a need to strengthen the channels of communication so that women in their teams can easily voice their concerns and take steps to minimize gender bias in their teams.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Arshia Ahmad Saqib: While I was growing up till now, altruism always inspired me. During all these years, I have been connected to it in one way or the other.
Who was the one woman (other than your mother) that inspired you?
Arshia Ahmad Saqib: It is a difficult question to answer as there are so many strong and inspiring women all around – some of them are world-famous personalities, while others are not known by many. Bibi Khadija, Benazir Bhutto, Angela Merkel, Mother Teresa, Oprah Winfrey are few prominent names who inspire me.
What would be your advice for aspiring women leaders in Pakistan’s corporate sector?
Arshia Ahmad Saqib: First and foremost, I hope women do aspire to reach the C-suite and are not afraid to state it. I want you to be brave and say what and where you want to be in life. Secondly, if there are any barriers – be it personal or structural – then face them head-on. Don’t let anything stand in your way. Everyone has encountered and will always continue to encounter obstacles in their lives – it is how we choose to deal with these obstacles that ultimately leads to success.
Lastly, always make sure you are adding value to your work and delivering results and those results are also being attributed to you! You need to play a role in helping your organization grow. It is also important to remember that ‘perfection’ is not the goal – there will be times that you will fall or feel that you are not doing enough, but never let those times shatter your confidence. Be brave, be intentional, and you will eventually make space for yourself.