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Celebrating Pakistani Women: Hina Khan, Head of Project Implementation JS Bank

Pakistan's corporate and financial sector is still very male-dominated, and women face many difficulties in reaching senior positions. We interviewed Hina A. Khan to hear her experience; personal challenges, glass ceilings and what kept her going.

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You are part of the senior leadership team at JS Bank – how easy was your path in the corporate world?

Hina A. Khan: When I started working for JS Bank in Sept 2019, I was re-entering the corporate world after a hiatus of six years from the sector and, for the first time, with a wholly national corporation. I had worked in large international corporations such as IBM and SAP in Canada, but since 2013, I was based in Islamabad, first, as a development sector consultant for various DFID projects and later, for a significant period, as a senior resource at the Prime Minister’s Office.

My return to the corporate sector was quite natural and timely. However, my path to leadership at JS Bank was far from ‘up the corporate ladder. JS Bank, I think, is quite unique because it hires not just outside of the industry but also the sector. They found me and convinced me to join them! While working with JS Bank, I truly experienced the bank’s affirmative action to promote women leaders.

The management, I found, had a clear vision and drive to recruit women for leadership roles. In less than two years, I was fast-tracked into being given a larger responsibility, with direct reporting to the President, and made a part of the Management Committee. What also helps the achievement is the right mix of experience, confidence, and attitude towards problem solving and management.

Even before beginning my career, I have always been a person with a strong sense of mission – whether it was about being the first girl in my family to make it to a university abroad at my own expense or getting a job in the middle of a financial meltdown in 2009 – I seldom considered whether something was a possible or not. I just set a goal and went for it. This idea is still very close to my heart and practice, and I think this has helped me excel in my path to leadership.

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Was your experience different working in other sectors such as development or with the bureaucracy?

Hina A. Khan: Tremendously different! My first job in Pakistan was in the development sector, working for an education campaign in Islamabad. Culturally, it was a perfect role for transitioning from working in the I.T. sector in Canada – bosses on a first-name basis, political correctness, relatively non-hierarchical, etc. It provided just the right environment for me to feel protected while undertaking a complete change in career path and re-experiencing Pakistan.

However, only a year and a half later, when I entered the Prime Minister’s office as one of the youngest MP-2 officers (the equivalent of a Grade 21 Civil Servant), I was in for a real shock. The Prime Minister’s Office was bureaucratic, very formal, and inert. However, it was also a place of great influence and impact on a much larger scale. To have that vantage point and contribute to the decision-making process of a country can be very exciting.

I learnt to exercise a lot of patience in not seeing many initiatives through. Working at the Prime Minister’s Office has played a major role in my work ethic, management, and leadership style. It was a role I pretty much had to define myself. I remember once noting that the Ali Baba Group was visiting for a meeting and sought approval to prepare briefing documents and an engagement strategy note for the PMO.

Similarly, when I learnt that the current Ambassador-At-Large for Foreign Investment, Ali Jehangir Siddiqui, had joined the PMO as the Special Assistant to the PM, I knocked on his door with a presentation on strategic engagement with global businesses that I developed. That presentation led him to appoint me to run the Prime Minister’s agenda at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in 2018 and later again in 2020.

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In Ambassador Siddiqui and the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Mr Fawad Hasan Fawad, I was lucky to have found exceptional bosses and mentors who encouraged me to work on a complete spectrum of initiatives. Now working for the private sector once again, but in a leader’s capacity, the pace of work is a lot faster, and expectations to deliver a lot higher.

I am enjoying it! The communication, time management, and technical skills I learned early on in my private sector career played a major role in my success in other sectors for many years. Working at J.S. Bank is an excellent opportunity for me to bring back what I have learned during my time away from corporates and re-tune those and other skills.

In 2013, a very successful ex-McKinsey acquaintance of mine floated the concept of tri-sector leadership in the Harvard Business Review and emphasized the growing need and ability of tri-sector leaders to find lasting and sustainable solutions to business challenges.

There is an increasing demand for professionals with this range of experience internationally. J.S. Bank is one of the few institutions in Pakistan proactively breaking sectoral barriers and trying to implement this concept. I now look back and find that while I had not planned for my career to take such contrasting paths in a short amount of time, an in-depth exposure across sectors has blessed me with a unique view and attitude towards solution finding.

What are the general obstacles that women face in the workplace?

Hina A. Khan: We are three sisters who are all working women. I will draw from our combined experiences to try to list a few of the obstacles women face. Gender stereotyping is a major issue as it can seriously colour the perception of a woman’s performance based on how they speak, dress, marital status, age, and more.

I was quite blatantly told once that I did not hold enough professional experience, based on my age, though by then I had been employed for eight years. Similarly, while married women are considered less productive, single women are expected to be as productive as single or married men with supportive households. Women are often caught between feeling a sense of responsibility to their work as well as their home, be it for their children, husband, or parents.

Many women suffer from a self-created obstacle – the imposter syndrome. I have experienced it myself and am often perturbed to see so many women express doubts on their skills, talents, and accomplishments unreasonably. External stereotyping often reinforces it. During a very important high-level foreign visit, one of the delegates inquired whose ‘wife’ I was, to understand my presence because contractual employees, especially women, travelling on official visits were so rare!

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How do you think companies can make it easier for women to work?

Hina A. Khan: DAYCARE! I do not have children, but both my sisters are working women with children and its the essential need for them to strike a balance between being a productive member and a mother. Mentorship programs are also essential for women to learn from each other’s experience, build a network, and nurture more leaders.

Was there a time when you thought – this is too much for me – I need to stop working?

Hina A. Khan: I have thought that, but thankfully not anymore. I was always a person who took too much on my plate. When I was studying in Canada, I had three jobs on top of being a fulltime student at one point in time. At another point in time, while in Islamabad, I worked as a fitness coach from 6 am to 9 am (because I enjoyed it so much) before heading over to a fulltime job at the PM Office and holding other short-term consultancies! I have always chosen to work out of a passion for delivering results and not to survive.

I like to enjoy work as a part of my life and not as something I have to ‘balance’ with my life. However, it still got tiring, and when I look back, I find it may have been because my work lacked an overarching purpose. It was just haphazard and felt directionless. A few years ago, I started investing heavily in charitable initiatives leading eventually to finding my charitable trust, DERGAH, to provide food and necessities at Data Darbar and to qaidis across various jails in Pakistan.

Call it a spiritual practice, but it plays a major role in inner relaxation and contentment regardless of an often-hectic schedule. Once a month, on a Thursday night, I make it a point to visit Lahore to distribute food on behalf of the Data Darbar’s trust. Everything I earn feeds directly into the trust, giving my work and efforts the purpose to keep me going.

Read more: 8 March Women’s Day: Have quotas helped Pakistani women Parliamentarians?

Has there been a mentor in your life that inspired you?

Hina A. Khan: Many! My grandmother, with her simplicity, my mother with her dynamism, my father, with his approach to focus ‘mehnat’ over results. Most of my worldly inspirations were very close to home, but I have taken a lot of spiritual inspiration from the teachings of Hazrat Data Ganj Baksh (R.A.) in Kashf-ul-Mahjoob and Hazrat Rabia Basri (R.A.), who broke all perceived boundaries of gender and society in her spiritual journey, as reflected in various scholarly works.

What would be your advice for aspiring women leaders in Pakistan’s corporate sector?

Hina A. Khan: Work hard, do your homework, and always know the value you bring to the table, and when needed – negotiate hard. I come across many talented and driven women who ask for too little in terms of remuneration or seniority. Please Stop!

What is your motto for life and work?

Hina A. Khan: People – whether it is a woman or man should not feel enslaved to their work and ambitions! Success chases you if you are ready to take a risk, roll up your sleeve and work hard!

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