Picture this: you’re a female in her twenties ready for a job interview at a firm. This isn’t a ‘seth’-owned company; you are being interviewed in the private sector at a multinational corporation, so you accordingly expect a high degree of professionalism. CV in hand, you sit before an HR manager who begins firing away the questions. It is unfortunate that happens to start the interview with the dreaded: “Are you married?”
The last time you heard this question, you were at a mehndi surrounded by well-meaning aunties. Not in the Human Resources office of a prominent corporation. This is Pakistan, you remind yourself, before you smile and answer her question. You tell yourself that she’s being inquisitive, and that it’s a cultural thing. It isn’t until her next query that you realize the ethical ambiguity of this line of questioning, “Do you promise not to get married if we hire you?”
Had this been New York or London, a Pakistani woman asked her marital status during a corporate job interview probably would have been fully aware of her rights and privileges, and most likely wouldn’t have thought twice before filing a discriminatory claim against the firm.
The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission explains, “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits workplace discrimination based on religion, national origin, race, color, or sex. At this time, employers and unions should be particularly sensitive to potential discrimination or harassment against individuals who are - or are perceived to be - Muslim, Arab, Afghani, Middle Eastern or South Asian (Pakistani, Indian, etc.).” In Britain, The Equal Opportunities Commission cites “You were asked about marriage and children at interview” as an example of how discrimination may operate in the workplace, under its guidelines for identifying sex and race discrimination. So why is it such a common practice here in Pakistan?
Pakistani firms include Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) as part of their policies, in accordance with Pakistani law. EEO prohibits discrimination against anyone on any pretext and speaks of the equality of every human being (irrespective of gender, religion, caste, ethnicity, color, age, physical disability) while considering a candidate before, during and after employment. EEO anti-discrimination protections apply to all of the terms and conditions of employment, including, but not limited to recruitment and selection, promotions, testing, training and development opportunities, hiring, transfers, work assignments, discipline, compensation, discharge, performance evaluation, working environment and other conditions of service.
Affirmative Action (AA), however, is still waiting to be implemented; AA aims to prohibit employer bias and unfair practices, upholding the equal employment rights of females, individuals with disabilities, underprivileged classes and minorities. Asking the marital status of a woman during the interview process indicates a categorization is taking place, deeming her suitable/unsuitable for the job depending on her answer. Then why, when a woman in Pakistan is asked whether she is married at a job interview, does she feel discouraged to take action and instead, accepts it as part of her nation’s corporate culture? Why does it not occur to an educated Pakistani woman to apply her rights and privileges? The answer is simple. She doesn’t think it will get her anywhere. She visualizes her discriminatory case taking several years to be tried in court, only to get her a month’s salary as compensation, that is, if her attorney were to succeed in winning the case. Not the millions of dollars in damages she could have won from the firm had it been in the US. A hollow victory, especially if it ruins her chances of finding another job.
Positions of significant responsibility are few and far between for women as compared with men. In a report published in the Canadian human resources website HRpost.com on ‘Equal Employment Practices in Pakistan,’ it was reported that female representation in lawyers, legislators, senior officials and managers was 9% of the total as compared to 26% representation in professional and technical workers. Furthermore, there are reports that women in Pakistan are kept them from key decision-making jobs in the public and private sectors and that, despite their qualifications, are mostly given entry-level jobs.
The good news: there will always be plenty of menial secretary/receptionist jobs for Pakistani women to choose from.
The bad news: what was the point in getting a degree?
Political Correctness is not an essential aspect in our corporate culture yet. Even within Pakistani society, our unabashed usage of politically incorrect terminology to describe ethnic and religious minorities reflects our insensitivity towards minority groups. These include ‘kafir,’ ‘karanta,’ ‘kala,’ ‘khusra,’ ‘chapta,’ and ‘choora,’ names that ridicule and stigmatize human beings in our everyday reference. So asking a job applicant their marital status hardly seems cruel compared with these derogatory classifications.
Asking discriminatory questions is not just a common practice in Pakistan, its even common in the majority of the developing world. It’s not just men asking the women such questions; women themselves seem to have little hesitation in asking other women prejudced questions, hence contributing towards gender bias against their own sex in employment hiring practices. Candidates who readily reply to such queries only affirm their legitimacy in corporate culture, EEO or no EEO (the author of this article admits to have also replied to these questions, after an awkward pause, and feels very hypocritical about it!).
In his essay on the ‘Duality of Female Employment in Pakistan’ (Pakistan Development Review 1991), A. Duncan observes that “in the example of the upper income class group, women work due to higher levels of education and experience, their greater liberation from domestic duties, and the professional satisfaction derived from work; constraints are appropriate education and training, employers' gender discrimination, and higher satisfaction from domestic roles.”
In ‘Situation Analysis—Sexual Harassment at the Workplace,’ a report published by the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (a group of nine civil society organizations in Pakistan), it stated that sexual harassment prevailed in every social group regardless of age, class and position. A startling 93% of female employees in private and public sector organizations admitted to experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, which included ‘dating’ co-workers, being threatened by bosses when they refused to comply with sexual propositions, and facing sexually suggestive comments.
The hypocrisy makes it even tougher to bear; women routinely face harassment and provocation by the same men who would most likely lash out if similar forms of persecution were accorded to their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. The Ministry of Women’s Development acknowledges the need for legislative measures towards eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace. Pakistan is a signatory of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), in which Article 19 protects women from sexual harassment. Additionally, Article 2 of the UN Declaration on Violence Against Women specifically mentions sexual harassment and intimidation at the workplace. Then what’s the delay in their implementation? After all, these are in accordance with Articles 25 & 27 from Fundamental Rights and Principles of Policy in our country’s Constitution; Article 25 (1) Equality of citizens: all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law. (2) There shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone. Article 27 (1) No citizen otherwise qualified for appointment in the service of Pakistan shall be discriminated against in respect of such appointment on the ground only of race, religion, caste, sex, residence, or place of birth. When both Articles are related, they safeguard the discrimination aspect. Effective implementation, however, remains a challenge and a necessity.
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that many educated women from the higher-economic-strata are discouraged from traditionally male-dominated professional spheres, which leaves them concentrating more towards careers in education, NGOs, advertising agencies, English-language print media, and of course, designing clothes. One would think that being interviewed at a multinational bank would be a politically-correct professional experience, banking firms whose corporate images exude world-class standards. In her interviewing experience at a top international bank in Lahore, NYU graduate student Atika Khawaja thought otherwise. “The Branch Manager, who I think was also the head of the Punjab division, was asking me some pretty standard questions about my education and experiences in the U.S., such as whom I admire and why. Out of the blue, he suddenly looked at me very intently and asked me how I kept physically fit! I was like, ‘excuse me?’ He went on to ask me whether I exercise, how I retain my figure, do I diet…completely irrelevant, inappropriate questions! He insisted on getting answers out of me, which I was not complying with since I felt so uncomfortable. Finally, I think he realized I was getting disgusted and wrapped up the entire interview. I just gave him a cold look, shook his hand and went home. It was awful!” Unsurprisingly, Atika did not get the job. One can only guess it might have had something to do with either her ‘cold look’ or her refusal to divulge her dietary secrets and fitness regime to a high-level banker.
Columbia graduate student Rishm N. Amjad barely got to shake her interviewer’s hand when she interviewed at a multinational bank in Lahore. “I reached out my hand to shake the interviewer’s hand—he gave me a look of utter horror and looked like he was about to faint! Who knew shaking hands in a professional environment could be considered so risqué? He shook it, nonetheless.” Although a firm handshake is listed in every job seeker’s guidebook, Rishm here seems to have embarrassed her potential employer by offering to shake his hand. Situations like this are known to occur, but more frequently at Islamic conferences than the office of a bank executive.
So what would you do if you were asked an inappropriate question? Let’s go back to our initial scenario.
Q. Are you married?
Your answer could be one of the following (select one):
- I am able to fulfill the responsibilities of this position regardless of my marital status.
- I’m single.
- I really don’t think this question is relevant for the job description.
- Yes, I’m married.
- I’m married with two children. My in-laws are very demanding and my baby’s maid keeps going on holiday…would you know of any maids I could hire?
- Married? Oh no, I don’t have time for anything like that. I plan to be married to my job for the rest of my life!
- If you chose 1, you are politely trying to steer the conversation away to a more pertinent topic; by adopting a tactful tone, you might succeed in avoiding the answer to the initial question.
- If you chose 2, you are really keen for the job and have no problem sharing your personal details. It might occur to you that had this question been asked in an industrialized country, you might have questioned its legitimacy.
- If you chose 3, you are not compromising your privacy for any HR personnel regardless of how it affects your evaluation form.
- If you chose 4, you have already reduced your chances for getting the job.
- If you chose 5, you have just committed career suicide.
- If you chose 6, congratulations, you are highly likely to get an offer letter soon!
Probably the most intelligent answer to such a question is the first. It’s diplomatic, tactful, and very professional. At the same time, it doesn’t compromise your privacy and make you feel that your answer may have contributed toward employer bias. However, the interviewer might persist in asking about your marital status, in which case you would have to choose from among your remaining answers. Generally speaking, firms feel more secure in knowing their applicants’ marital status because they are suspicious of female employees resigning once their wedding date approaches and/or are reluctant to offer maternity leave in the future. Employers have complained that women are placed and promoted less than men because they remain absent from work more frequently and are less mobile than their male counterparts. Women have described getting subordinate status at firms while men team up in larger groups, often demonstrating hostility and harassment towards their female colleagues. Both genders mistakenly accept these conditions as social norms.
A group of male and female mid-level executives stated that in their experience, they found that female employees generally worked harder than their male colleagues. There were other issues that worked against them, such as not being able to stay at work as late as men and lack of geographic flexibility. Work environment was reported as a particularly sensitive area for women employees, particularly for women from a lower or middle economic background who appear quiet and reclusive in a male dominated office. Women sometimes have to try twice as hard to prove themselves in fields where they are not taken seriously, such as trading. A female executive describes, “If a woman is more career-oriented and her background is such that she has the freedom to pursue her ambitions, then marital status does not play a role. But in our country, a woman is seldom at liberty from family dictates/rules and they play a major role in her ability to work. As far as I know, marital status is only asked in relation to permanence of a woman in a job. As you are aware, when a woman is not married, she is in a limbo state. Once she is married, it is easier for her to stick to her job, as she becomes an earning member of her family unit with her husband. One thing that I would like to add here is that all this is changing at a very rapid rate. A lot more women are working, especially in (the upper) socio-economic level. In fact, it is expected that she work if she isn’t getting married! This is especially true for Karachi.”
A male executive working at the local office of international agency describes women employees as being “more dedicated, hard-working and reliable” than men. In his experience, personality plays a more significant role in the performance of women in the workplace than their marital status. “Marital status…largely plays little role with respect to the quality of work” and asking a woman whether she’s single or married is an unfair question because “a man would never be asked the same thing!”
The CEO of a firm admitted that he preferred hiring women since their work performance and their loyalty made them stick it out longer with the firm. A senior female manager working at a major multinational firm in Lahore reiterated this claim. She said that a woman’s marital status shouldn’t be held against her since men had a greater tendency to change jobs and change cities than women, and were likely to be more ambitious in their lookout for more lucrative positions at other firms. Married women, for instance, would be more reluctant to change cities because of their familial obligations. Another female executive said that there was no harm in taking up to 6 months off for maternity leave if the person had been employed by the firm for, say, several years. “What’s 6 months out of 5 years,” she shrugged.
All in all, asking a woman her marital status provides a lose-lose situation for woman. By giving out this information, a woman is subjecting herself to being categorized via pre-conceived notions from her prospective employers, let alone violating her right to privacy. The wisest policy towards recruiting and retaining a dedicated, confident employee is to treat her with respect and make her feel comfortable in her work environment. Similarly, families ought to demonstrate a high degree of deference towards their career-oriented wives and daughters. It seems only fair that women ought to be able to choose the manner in which they balance their professional and personal lives.