• 28 Jul - 03 Aug, 2018
  • Rabia Mushtaq
  • Interview

When discussing technology, leadership, entrepreneurship and women empowerment in Pakistan, Sadaffe Abid’s name merits a mention. Ever since her days of yore, the iron lady has been a part of amazing initiatives to empower women, she has been a Harvard alumnus while learning Adaptive Leadership at the Kennedy School and has been a moving spirit behind CIRCLE – an organisation on a mission to advance women’s economic participation and empowerment. Sadaffe is undoubtedly a force to reckon with. In this interview with MAG, she talks about her passionate endeavours towards strengthening the role of women in leadership and how she is working to fulfil her goals. Read on!

Tell us about your professional journey?

I was at Kashf (Foundation) for 12 years and was one of the founding team members, and later CEO of the organisation. Moving from that role was a tough decision. It was a great journey; I grew a lot, tackled on the ground challenges, received immense opportunities and learnt how everything about women impacts the entire community. We started as an action research, experimented and worked as a team. Then, I received a scholarship at the Harvard Kennedy School for the master’s program. It was great to have a year for reflection, meeting new people and learning new ideas. Later, I got married and moved to Dubai, where I had to re-invent and think about how to make a positive contribution to the society there. So I went back to Harvard and worked as a teaching fellow with Professor Ron Heifetz, whose ideas and work have shaped my growth. Then I came back to run leadership programs for women, and that’s how the idea of CIRCLE started.

How was your experience of studying at the Harvard Kennedy School?

Those were the best years of my life. I love being in an intellectually stimulating environment and Harvard offered me just that. It’s a place that encourages you to be bold and asks you to contribute to the world. Harvard’s philosophy prepared me to come back to my own country and work towards making an impact.

At a time when people left Pakistan and moved abroad, what motivated you to come back?

As a young woman, I wanted to work in the development sector, and I realised that it is needed the most in Pakistan. Post Harvard, I moved from Dubai to Karachi. I found the city welcoming, diverse, progressive and open to new ideas, and to new people.

There is so much that needs to be done in our country; one could spend the next ten years, pick up a problem and try solving it in a sustainable way; that's why I am very interested in women economic inclusion, especially in Pakistan.

Do you think there is reluctance in terms of women being serious about having a career, especially after they get married?

In our country, women lack role models and do not see many public examples of successful women. In Pakistani society and actually in many others too, you need your parents, partner, and in-laws to be supportive, and that's where it gets challenging for women because they are not encouraged to follow their ambitions. I have met so many talented women and am impressed by them. However, there is a long way to go and it’s important for us as a society to encourage women. Pakistan has one of the lowest formal labour force participation of women in the region. We have only 25 percent of women as part of the formal labour force. This means if we aren’t able to use one half of our population’s talent then how can we progress as a country. We are not using their skills, ideas, experience, and expertise, while we should really be creating opportunities for them, so both, men and women can thrive at home, at the workplace and in the society.

Where does Pakistan stand in terms of gender parity at work place?

According to the World Economic Forum’s gender gap policy report, Pakistan stands at 143 out of 144 countries. This is an overall picture that looks at their economic, political and educational participation. We have less than two per cent women on board and fewer women leaders overall. However, it’s a very exciting time as awareness is increasing, companies are coming forward to build a culture where men and women grow, creating policies that enable women to have agile working and flexible hours.

Is it possible for women to become agents of change if they are in a leadership position?

Leadership can be exercised by anyone. A leadership position only gives you a title and authority which has an advantage, but you do not have to wait to be in an influential position to exercise leadership. You can start from where you are. It’s important to build allies, to navigate effectively and be with people who support and nurture you. It’s also important to learn from people who oppose your ideas. You need to navigate effectively, pick the issue on and see how receptive the organisation/people/team is; and if they are not, then what can you do to convince them and the pace of change. This is actually what we teach in adaptive leadership, where we learn how to exercise it effectively.

What is your goal as an advocate of women empowerment?

I want to see a world, and a Pakistan, where we have more women in leadership roles, as well as more female visibility in key platforms such as conferences, boards and committees. I strongly believe that Pakistan’s solution to many of its challenges lies in creating opportunities for women.

Data shows that financial performance improves when women are part of leadership, as diversity boosts the bottom line. Peace deals are more sustainable when there are women sitting at the table, so it’s about creating a world, creating a Pakistan where men and women together can move forward. It’s not about dominating but working together leveraging each other’s strength. We also need more women to support other women and to celebrate each other’s success.•