So what do you do?
NEW YORK, USA – Social interaction in New York City is somewhat a unique business. In the city of dreams, meeting someone new, of course, starts with exchanging names. However, this is quickly followed-up by the question: “so what do you do”? And this does require an answer. Till today I get stumped at this question. While a few offer me some sympathies, most of them label me as the “lucky one for not having a job”. The reality, however, is that a life without job is only fun for a while. But the involuntary derailment of a smooth career is no laughing matter.
At the age of 28, I found myself in the city of New York, newly married but without a job. Going from struggling to establish a career in a relatively conservative society of Pakistan to the city of New York with endless job opportunities but no work permit, is challenging, to say the least.
Breaking the society norms I crave my path ahead
I grew up in Pakistan during the 90’s and went to an all girls’ school. As a kid I didn’t have a career role model to look up to. My mother was a housewife and so were the majority of women around me. For me, men’s role was to be the primary breadwinner and the women’s task was to be the homemaker. However, from a young age the life of a homemaker didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to be a woman with a strong career.
I dreamt of becoming a politician like Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister of Pakistan. Then I wanted to be a psychologist and finally, as I progressed to high-school, I aspired to become a doctor. Being a doctor in Pakistan was one of the very few professions considered as “respectable” for a woman, so it seemed as a plausible choice.
For my O and A levels, I took all science subjects that were needed for medical school. I struggled. Sadly, I was not good at these subjects . And there was no counselling offered to help students to take subjects according to their aptitude.
I did not get into a medical school; no surprise there. I was at a crossroads at the tender age of eighteen. Without much guidance and following the suggestion of my father, I enrolled for a business degree at a local university in Lahore. At that time I had no idea what career I would eventually follow but as the Bachelor’s degree progressed I found myself enjoying humanities subjects greatly.
During my MBA later on, I also showed a keen interest in subjects like marketing, human resource management and organisational behaviour. This latter one fascinated me the most. It opened my eyes to the fact that from a small shop to a big multinational corporation every place was a social entity and that the human side of the company cannot be ignored.
At that time, the practices of HR in Pakistan was limited to managing employee databases and only showed some brush up in the areas of training in small organizations around Pakistan. Advanced HR practices were advocated at multinationals only. But my interest wasn’t weakened by the lack of possible job opportunities in this field.
This led me to pursue another Masters degree in the subject of organizational and social psychology at the London School of Economics (LSE). While most of my classmates got the best jobs around the world post-graduation, I found myself explaining my Msc degree to most employers in Pakistan. Yes, the name of LSE sometimes made them look at my CV but it was not enough for them to offer me a job. Most of them argued that my degree was not an HR degree and that I had no job experience. The biggest difficulty was to actually get to these organizations in the first place.
I dropped my CV at most of the multinational and other organizations around Lahore but nepotism frequently got in the way. Yes, it does exist. And whoever says it doesn’t, clearly hasn’t applied for a job in Pakistan yet. Unless you know someone in the HR department personally, your CV is likely to be tossed on top of the thousands that are already lying around, untouched. But if you know someone influential? The unsaid motto is: “ask for a favour and be handed the job on a silver platter”.
My first job in Pakistan
After a year of being unemployed I landed my first job at a prestigious Design Institute at Pakistan. I was given the task of setting up the HR department of the Institute with the help of an HR assistant and a retired HR manager, who liked to run the HR department in his own ‘bureaucratic’ way. For the entire year I spent there, I faced resistance when trying to implement different strategies to make the HR system more flexible and modern. The HR manager revoked most of my suggestions. Being a female HR person did not go well with some of the employees of the Institute either. I once happened overheard my assistant talking to another employee that he couldn’t work with me, a ‘female’ boss, who was too young to be an associate HR officer. The Principal of the Institute, however, was a woman. Well respected with very strong character and great work ethic. She helped me wherever she could, and often supported my new ideas and policy suggestions.
What I could draw from my experience, having a female person, as the head of organization in Pakistan, helps other female employees’ but doesn’t go too well with the male members who are to report to a woman. This is still a strong characteristic of our society in Pakistan. Men like women in places where they can control them; which mainly in their homes. Pakistani men can’t deal with empowered women. Though things have changed, most Pakistani men still resent authorised women in business environment. Vulgar jokes and comments are made when women are not around and rumours are spread about an affair if a woman is seen being a little friendly to any male coworkers. No wonder, for most women in Pakistan, marriage and the subsequent role of a being a homemaker, is still what considered as the most appropriate ‘career’ for them.
While, I am happy to see, that there is an increasing number of women who continue their jobs after marriage – some have to work due to financial reasons the majority, however, bid adieu to their careers and choose to spend their days looking after the house and the kids. There are some jobs, which are still termed as “respectable”, like being a teacher and a doctor, while other jobs like working in sales are frowned upon by the patriarchs of this conservative society.
Perhaps this is why, when my manager said he wasn’t happy with my performance and that I would better suited to teaching and dealing with students, I resigned from my HR position and did as he suggested. For one semester I became a teaching associate and from there, there was no looking back. Working with students was the best experience of my life. I taught psychology and human behaviour for the next two years. There was no office politics to deal with and no gender discrimination to face everyday. I was happy to see that the new generation who were the next workforce are unlike t their predecessors. I hope for a new future for women in Pakistan.
The road from Pakistan to New York is paved with challenges
Once I got married and I had to relocate to New York.I resigned from my teaching positions from both universities. At that time I knew little about visa questions and even less about the types of visas. I knew I would not be able to work and was told I can get a work permit if any company sponsors me but I had fallen into the category of “cursed spouse with the H4 VISA.“ Each year thousands of highly skilled people move to the US on H1B work permit visa, along with their spouses and families who get H4 visa. This spousal H4 visa, in reality, confines us to a life of social isolation and financial dependence. Spouses with such visa are not entitled to work, open a bank account or even have a social security number. The result is often hopelessness and loss of personal identity. And I am not an exception to deal with ‘this loss’ either.
My only options with such a status was either to do an unpaid internship or enrol to another Masters program. Another Master’s degree meant spending more money. So I got an unpaid internship at a Fashion Sales company, here, in New York. I managed their day-to-day activities and dealt with buyers and participated in trade shows. My experience was certainly enriching but I also felt that due to my visa status I was sometimes exploited in the demands of the work and responsibilities entrusted to me.
So here I am, two years later still awaiting a work permit. While waiting I decided to develop my writing skills at New York University in a hope to tell my story and narrate the stories of others. With all the educational degrees and work experiences neatly tucked on one side – though, of little use right now -, I am motivated to make my way ahead and to continue the struggle to rebuild, and perhaps, reshape my career.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Editor at MissCareerLess
After her career hit a bump in the road, adjusting to New York where, according to a song “women are beautiful and everyone has a job” life is certainly not easy for Shamim. She bid adieu to a career in education in Pakistan when she moved to New York City after getting married and still awaits a work permit. Taking journalism classes at NYU School of Continuing Education and working on a blog keeps her motivated. When she is not writing, she can be found spending time on a yoga mat and walking around the city of New York discovering new coffee shops. More about Shamim…