Pakistan … More Gender Balance than you might think

Pakistan … More Gender Balance than you might think

Pakistan is a highly complex and ambiguous country. The media projects Pakistan as conservative, but there is a segment of society that is liberal and broad minded.

In a country that is not known for its female inequality, it is hopeful to see how a big company, such as Unilever is addressing the gender balance.

Unilever aimes to set an example and become a model on gender balance. Now, most of their competitors are doing the same. The employers become progressive. They make it very clear: that between two equal candidates, they would pick the woman because there is an imbalance that needs to be corrected.

In Pakistan, as in a growing number of countries, women perform better academically. Medical colleges are 70% full of women, but less than half of them continue working beyond a few years of qualifying, partly because of family reasons but also due to working conditions.

In many companies some of the greatest openness and action on gender balance is in emerging market operations. Unilever Pakistan has achieved its gender balancing targets internally (ahead of most Western countries).

They are doing things that might appear inconceivable elsewhere. For example, to recruit female engineers in its remote factories, Unilever provides security-guard staffed housing for the women next to the facilities, ensuring their safety and reassuring their families. Flexible working from different locations — home, distributor premises, or ad agency offices — is another step that benefits all managers. Some female managers, however prefer coming to the office, where there is a day care center to look after their children. Unilever is now setting their sites on “a much bigger agenda” with gender as a competitive advantage with consumers, and a condition for working with suppliers.

Unilever’s global strategy is to move increasingly into the beauty business. In Pakistan, where Unilever has been operating since 1948, two thirds of the population is still rural. The villages are much more conservative than the cities, and women don’t interact with men and are more reluctant to shop for beauty products. In a twist on the Avon model, Unilever has been recruiting village women and training them for three months in the basics of beauty care and vocational business basics (e.g. How to open a bank account, blow dry hair and apply bridal makeup). When they return to their villages, they are positioned to offer both sales and services to the locals.

Over time, Unilever is preparing to partner with other companies, so that these women become business hubs for their villages. For example, telecoms companies might make their Pay As You Go cards available through the same location.

For the moment, there are 900 women who have gone through the training, and there is a plan to increase this to 7,000. The rural population’s bank is usually a couple of villages away. So not only do other women come for beauty advice, they also start coming for advice on how to open bank accounts and start a business. And it seems the men are starting to come too, looking for the same guidance.

Where government fails, it seems global companies can fill the void by building concepts that become platforms for change and progress.

Extracts from article in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network

Do you have any experience of doing business in Pakistan that you can share?

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