Rabia, you are part of the C-suite management of a leading Pakistani company, was it a long journey?
Rabia Wafah Khan: The days are long, but the years are short – however, in a real sense, it has been an exciting journey where I have lived and learned and have grown both personally and professionally.
Were there any personal glass ceilings that you had to face?
Rabia Wafah Khan: Of course, aren’t there always? While together, as females, we have broken many such ceilings, I feel that we need to continue progressing more. On a personal note, my significant glass ceiling came when my second son was born, and the decision to continue working or conserve mental strength and, therefore, quit loomed large.
However, while there were a few opportunities that did not pan out during my career, I was lucky to be working in Engro, where I got the best options. The organization was pivoting to promote gender diversity amongst its ranks. I was fortunate to benefit from several organizational policies that helped me through this critical crossover of my personal and professional life. My mentors always took an interest in advancing my learning and career, so to be honest, shattering the glass ceiling was perhaps not as difficult for me.
What are the specific challenges that women face in the workplace?
Rabia Wafah Khan: While there are unique challenges that each person faces – depending upon the organization and group of people you are working with – but we can say that there are various generalizations across the board.
Firstly, I think there are many preconceived notions of what women can or cannot do, or will not do, which create challenges for women working in the workforce. This, however, I feel, is a global phenomenon and not just limited to Pakistan. These perceptions & generalizations could be related to our capability, ability or even willingness, such as our willingness to be geographically mobile, our ability to work late into the night or sometimes even perceptions about our capability to perform complex tasks.
Even more troubling are work cultures that evolve to suit men – for example, start late, work late – who are a majority of the workforce, but become a significant impediment for women who have multiple responsibilities that naturally preclude sitting work till midnight.
The proposed solution: asking women to head out while the ‘boys’ take care of work, encourages misogynistic narratives that start to exclude women from opportunities that will advance their careers. It will pigeonhole them into clerical roles which are not fulfilling and eventually force them to drop out of the workforce. The real solution is to stop at a decent hour unless it is an emergency, and in that case, everyone agrees on work norms.
To top it all off, the biological clock, or the imperative to get married and have children, is ticking at precisely the time when you need to show up and prove your commitment at work.
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For many women in the early to mid-stages of their career, I am sure it feels like the world is conspiring against them, but I believe that things are shaping up now, in corporate Pakistan as well. Organizations are realizing – albeit slowly – that women are needed at the table, and culture needs to be recalibrated to suit and promote diversity of gender.
Many women enter the labour force as professionals in Pakistan – but at two points, we see the most significant 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?
Rabia Wafah Khan: I was extremely lucky to be working at Engro. During both these transitions, I was blessed with a very enabling environment and supervisors; the change to post-marriage, I think, is more mental, but the real challenge comes when you have children. They are game-changers: suddenly, you have limited time and energy, and unlike managing adults, babies are messy, they don’t follow timetables and schedules, and they take up a lot of mental (and physical) energy.
The on-site Engro daycare, which is a professionally managed and state of the art facility, was heaven sent in easing the transition for me and is one of the biggest blessings for working moms that could exist. It takes a load off your mind to know that the baby is only a few floors away and in a safe and secure environment with trained staff.
Even more important than the daycare, I believe, is the enabling environment and top management support. They are people who understand the challenges you are going through and gently guide you towards staying in the game, rather than trying to excel at everything at a time when you clearly may not be able to.
How does being a ‘female’ CFO add to your work-life challenges? Was there a trade-off?
Rabia Wafah Khan: Most people working in senior roles have made trade-offs in terms of work-life challenges – and therefore, as an individual first and a woman second, it is no different for me. As a society, we need to step out of the impression that being a female executive is different from a male executive. Yes, personal circumstances can be different for each individual, but work-life challenges remain for everyone.
We should acknowledge the men who also sacrifice time with family and other pursuits to meet their work responsibilities. At the end of a busy and hectic day, my trade-offs are probably no tougher than theirs.
How can the work environment generally be made more favourable towards women in the workplace?
Rabia Wafah Khan: Generally, a more humane and empathetic workplace will benefit everyone, both men and women. One lesson that the pandemic has taught us is that we need to be more compassionate and understanding.
So, in my opinion, we need to work on what I call the hardware – the policies, the frameworks, the systems – which can provide an enabling environment for females. This could include the provision of daycare, agile work hours, mentorship and coaching programs, amongst others. On the other hand, lies the software – the people and the behavioural aspect – this is a much tougher cookie.
We need to initiate sensitization and behavioural programs across the board in companies to be aware of their biases, deep-rooted prejudices and issues in working with women. Giving women opportunities through special projects and mentoring them is also extremely important, especially at critical times during their lives, to help them navigate potentially tricky terrain successfully.
What did you want to be when you were a little girl?
Rabia Wafah Khan: An architect
Who was the one woman (other than your mother) that inspired you?
Rabia Wafah Khan: Indra Nooyi of Pepsi Co had a strong influence on my career path: here was a woman from a similar culture to the one I am from, who probably faced similar pressures to the one I was experiencing, since she was also married and had kids, and who succeeded in what she set out to do; I also find Ruth Bader Ginsburg very inspiring, again for the same reason.
There is a certain tenacity in these hugely successful women’s stories, which is inspiring. They have surmounted the same seemingly impossible situations that you are now facing and come out stronger on the other side, which drives one to keep going till goals are achieved.
What would be your advice for aspiring women leaders in Pakistan’s corporate sector?
Rabia Wafah Khan: Think long term, be clear about where you want to be and what you need to do to get there. But most importantly, don’t try to do everything together. You have a finite amount of energy, and it makes sense to allocate it where your priority is – and priorities change over time. Most importantly, find a mentor who you trust and who understands your motivations and work with him or her to navigate life and achieve your end goals.