"Pakistan is a highly complex and ambiguous country," Ehsan Malik, Country Manager for Unilever Pakistan, told me. "The media projects Pakistan as conservative, but there is a large segment of society that is liberal and broad minded." (Disclosure: Unilever is a client of mine globally, but not the Pakistan branch particularly.)
"My predecessor at Unilever Pakistan was a woman who went to run L'Oreal Pakistan. My wife runs a business and both our mothers and sisters have always worked, as do many in our families and friends. So for me Unilever's gender balance drive is not something extraordinary." Two of the people on Malik's six-person Management Committee are women, and he sees the possibility that his successor could be female. "There are three senior women who have been listed as high potential so we could have a majority female Management Committee in the foreseeable future."
"We aimed to set an example and become a model on gender balance. Now, virtually all our competitors are doing the same... In Pakistan, despite the bad press, when it comes to gender, employers are progressive."
How do the men react? "There was a debate two or three years back, around a concern that we were favoring women. We made it very clear: between two equal candidates, we said we 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% 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," notes Malik.
In many companies I work for, some of the greatest openness and action on gender balance is in emerging market operations. I have found managers in Brazil, India or Malaysia more enthusiastic and convinced of the business case than their Western colleagues, in much more challenging contexts. And ready to go to much greater lengths to adapt to women's needs.
Like Pakistan. Unilever Pakistan has achieved its gender balancing targets internally (ahead of most Western countries), which Malik considered "relatively simple," yet by doing things that might appear inconceivable elsewhere. So, 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. However, he observed, "some female managers prefer coming to the office — there is a day care center to look after their children, they want to get away from extended families that many in Pakistan live with, [and] they can escape the power cuts that plague large cities."
These seemed like obvious investments to Malik who is now setting his 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, Malik 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 Malik is planning on increasing this to 7,000. "The rural population's bank is usually a couple of villages away. So we are finding that 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," concludes Malik, " global companies can fill the void by building concepts that become platforms for change and progress."