Image credits: WOW360 – Fatima Arshad, Head of Sustainable Business and Communications at Unilever
Women in Pakistan face unique challenges in their professional lives ranging from limited access to education to gender biases that hinder their growth and progress. However, as we continue to celebrate the successes of women in leadership and break down barriers, we contribute to a brighter future for all women in the workforce.
As a part of our Women in Leadership series, we spoke with Fatima Arshad, Head of Sustainable Business and Communications at Unilever to provide her insights and experience.
Overcoming Roadblocks: Challenges Women Face in Leadership Positions
We asked Fatima about some of the challenges women face when they assume leadership roles. She feels that experiences may be incredibly diverse, but there are certain challenges that we all share in our professional lives.
Often these challenges start early, sometimes at home, when the value of investing in a girl’s education is questioned or when sociocultural norms hinder women’s access to and right to work. Unfortunately, many talented and ambitious women are lost to these roadblocks.
Inherent biases may sometimes affect people’s perceptions of women as leaders, and in such cases, it is essential to remember the incredible accomplishments and qualifications of women in the workforce. Their growth and promotion are not just due to quota hiring but are based on their undeniable merit.
Building an Inclusive Ecosystem
An enabling ecosystem is at the heart of any effective strategy.
One major contributor is the fact that women in leadership roles may not always be provided with an equitably enabling environment, and there is a need to accommodate their diverse needs, roles as parents or primary caregivers, and the need for safe and secure working conditions.
It is also important to recognize that sometimes women hold themselves back, perhaps by not asking for the support they need to succeed or doubting their ability to explore leadership roles. While impostor syndrome is a genuine concern, we must work together to address it, empowering women to believe in their capabilities and seize opportunities and recognize their undeniable merit.
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From Bias to Balance: Changing Attitudes Towards Women in Leadership
Fatima mentions that societal attitudes toward women in leadership roles have evolved over the years. Having experienced a positive attitude, she is conscious that this could lead her to share a biased view.
We owe this in part to the incredible examples women leaders and women in the workforce have set, which have swung the scales even if not balanced.
The other fact is the changing societal dynamics with evolving millennial and GEN Z roles shaping the new workforce and attitudes at home; we have observed a rise in the challenge of diversity and inclusion entering the public consciousness, sometimes unconstructive and, at other times, positive ways.
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Self-advocacy begins with self-belief
“It is important to understand that our perceived value often reflects our believed value. Often women tend to dismiss their own abilities, and this impacts our likelihood of exploring new opportunities and putting ourselves out there. I have worked on a profile which outlines my strengths, and unique skills and highlights examples of successful projects.
She has observed the success of women leaders who invest in building strong relationships with stakeholders, as this often converts stakeholders into effective sponsors. It also helps to brush up and actively work on one’s communication skills.
“A big part of advocacy is putting oneself into situations that can feel uncomfortable at first, but inevitably help build better careers over time as the important piece is to grow one’s circle of influence as a leader.”
Bridging the Gap: Ensuring Fair Pay for Women in Leadership Positions
It falls upon employers to ensure that there is fair pay for women. It is important to identify, address and solve explicit and hidden inequities within the organisation.
“Frequent audits can also find pay gaps and ensure that one is aware of the blind spots. There are some industries, and functions, where the gap is wider and deeper, often in specialist roles and an audit, can help one know better and as a result, do better.
“Similarly, gender-related pay gaps are sometimes carried over time as women may often start their careers at a lower salary. This is where companies can ensure that growth over time and related compensation are equitable and encourage women to become more comfortable with asking for compensation that is due to them.
Prioritising Equity: From Hiring to Promotion in Organizations
Fatima finds herself fortunate to work at Unilever where the values of diversity and inclusion are embedded into the DNA.
“In fact, now it has evolved into Equity, Diversity and Inclusion- ED&I, which is now discussing how, equity more than equality, considers the different needs of different groups and empathizes with and solves the diversity of those challenges. The reason for its success is that it exists at the very top of the organisation and by, design is translated into policies, behaviours and actions across the length and breadth of the company.
Equity is not an HR agenda, it is a company agenda
Men: Equal Supporters for Advocating Gender Equality
“I was in a session recently where Dr Bari Khan from the Indus Hospital was speaking at our office. And he shared that it is said that behind every successful man is a woman, and then went on to say that in his case, I say, it is beside and not behind every successful man is a woman.
Men can be allies and champion the cause. Male leaders have the most important role to play in this space as they are often in positions of influence which can address the lack of representation; and inequities.”
Breaking Stereotypes and Debunking Common Misconceptions
“There are many, and most of them stem from the expectation that women in leadership are supposed to emulate the behaviours of male leaders.
Another misconception arises when “Being compassionate or empathetic is frequently confused with not being assertive enough or lacking leadership skills. Perhaps there is merit in redefining the outdated notion of leadership skills because women statistically bring skills like creativity, collaboration, problem-solving and empathy more than others.
“Some of the other stereotypes that women leaders face are, unfortunately often perceived lack of commitment due to their responsibilities are caregivers; spouses or parents. This is never the case with male colleagues in similar roles and should now be accommodated as part of the new developing understanding of equity.”
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Empowering the Future
“It is important to invest in women’s confidence and skill-building and advance them through the pipeline through structured and streamlined interventions designed around their growth.
Women should be mentored and provided opportunities to learn and develop leadership skills along with exposure opportunities for their development.
Addressing the Lack of Diversity and Representation of Women in Industries and Fields
It is important to present strong female role models to young women in their early education years or careers so that they have good examples to follow in their lives.”
It is also important to create a work environment that values and supports diversity and offers enough flexibility to the women in such fields as they may also struggle from a sense of lack of belonging.
“Abroad, we see companies and governments investing in grants to bring more women into the fold to help reduce the barriers for women to enter a particular field.
Empowering women to believe in their capabilities and advocating for themselves, can lead to meaningful change in our organizations and communities.
The articles, podcasts, and impact videos by SEED Ventures (in strategic partnership with WOW360pk) serve as additional learning material for the British Council Women in Leadership (WIL) programme participants. These materials provide a local context that is essential for participants to have a deeper understanding of the content they have learned. They also offer diverse perspectives on how leadership is reflected at the grassroots level, and at higher management and are designed to benefit both facilitators and participants of the WIL Programme.
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