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Sometimes twitter is frustrating. Other times it is educational. Latest tweet from Dr Nadeem-ul-Haque who is currently VC at the prominent Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) seems to have single-handedly done both. To paraphrase: the tweet lamented that while gender balancing in panels is often demanded, there may not be any female experts to invite to said panels. Is that true? Are there no qualified, competent, impressive female voices to include in panels on energy, markets, competition, macroeconomics et al. that would improve the quality of the debate and add value to it?

Twitter vehemently disagreed. In fact, a number of shocked twitter folks came back with a robust list of women subject experts in their respective fields who are deemed as qualified as men, if not more. A quick nod here to a data field set up by [email protected] that lists a non-exhaustive, crowd sourced collection of female names that are prominent professionals in a variety of different sectors in Pakistan.

But despite a swift response from people disabling the common rhetoric that there are no women experts that can be invited to speaking events, the entire exchange points toward a much deeper and pervasive issue. One of implicit gender biases and more broadly the vast gender gaps that prevail in this country.

One cannot deny that there are more male experts than female in any given field, be it in the private sector domain or the public sector. There are few female leaders in the corporate sector and within the government; fewer still that get the opportunity to move up the ladder. According to a survey conducted by advocacy group Women on Board (WOB), only 11 percent of listed companies in Pakistan have a woman on their boards. Female CEOs are unheard of. Aftab Ahmed who is the founder of WOB also pointed that most female directors were on 3-4 boards which automatically reduced the number of unique women holding a board position. These women leaders typically came from prominent business families of the country and held multiple board positions across the sponsor group. In fact, more than 65 percent of women directors in corporate Pakistan hold these position because they are part of the family.

Pakistan is a deeply unequal country. If there are fewer female experts and fewer leaders, it is by design. There are deep-rooted gender gaps in education and health, employment, employment opportunity, economic as well as political participation in Pakistan. There are a myriad of statistics far and between that highlight these gender inequities (read: “Women at War”, July 12, 2018; “Another 71 years”, Dec 19, 2019). In fact, Pakistan comfortably stands at the bottom of the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Gender Gap, next to war-torn Iraq and Yemen, a position it has happily maintained for several years. Is it improving? Not fast enough. Per the report, it will take 71.5 years for South Asia to gain gender parity. Pakistan is at the bottom in South Asia. Let that sink in.

The debate on gender inequities needs to start already. That man-only-panels (or manels) thrive despite there being a choice of female experts that could also be invited indicates an implicit gender bias (from presuming there may not be female experts to believing that women experts may not have anything valuable to contribute), and it only exacerbates the gender gap issue.

Unconscious gender bias is pretty common. A study conducted by International Labour Organization (ILO) Bureau for Employer’s Activity cited unconscious gender bias as one of the top barriers to women’s career advancement. Meanwhile, a research by McKinsey and Company found that invisible barriers were holding women back, rather than overt sexism. Gender biases were found amongst managers when they were evaluating performances, assigning new assignments, and providing female employees access to leadership development programmes. These biases prevent women from the career growth their male counterparts enjoy naturally.

Perhaps one of the most important arguments is one of merit. The potential argument that if manels exist, perhaps it is because women experts are simply not at par (or there are few women leaders, it is because they are not good enough). Whereas the ILO study points to the “paradox of meritocracy”—that “rewards of strong performance may accrue to the employees that already enjoy significant advantages”, and since “women often incur social and/or cultural disadvantages, a purely merit-based performance appraisal may simply reinforce those inequalities”; a study conducted by a scientific journal points toward something different altogether.

The WEF cited a randomized double-blind study published in a scientific journal where faculty members at research-intensive universities were asked to rate the application of a candidate for a managerial position. Candidates were randomly assigned a male or female identity. The result? Both male and female faculty members were likely to view the female applicant less competent and hireable. The male applicants were also offered a higher starting salary. The idea that merit should be the primary metric to judge competency should take implicit biases in mind.

There is mounting evidence on the subject, but it is clear that in Pakistan, this is a nascent oft pushed-under-the-rug subject to be discussed “at a later time”. That time should be now. Women inclusion is not symbolic or merely to fill a certain quota or make a few irate feminists happy. Women in Pakistan have important and valuable contributions to make in nearly every field and they need to be sought and included.