Role models and rule breakers – Hina Usmani

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In many other countries, Hina Usmani would just be doing her day job, but in her homeland of Pakistan, as a rare female accountant in a male-dominated environment, she is at the forefront of changing an entire work culture.

Now 50, Usmani was only the tenth woman in the whole of the 188 million-strong South Asian nation to qualify as a chartered accountant, and the first to do so in her extended family.

In 2010, after a successful two decade career, she decided to dedicate her experience to founding an all-female accountancy firm, not only offering female accountants flexible hours that work around their home lives, but also focussed on helping other women entrepreneurs to build up their businesses.

The socially conservative country of Pakistan has a conflicting reputation on women’s rights. In 1988 it was the first majority Muslim nation to elect a female leader, Benazir Bhutto.

Yet in 2016, girls in rural Pakistan can still be discouraged from attending school. Only four years ago, the world was shocked when 15 year old education activist, Malala Yousafzai, was shot by extremists on her way to school in the northwest district of Swat. She survived to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Regardless of class or status, most women face the social pressure of family responsibilities that keep them at home and often hinder their careers.

Usmani was the youngest of seven children growing up in Karachi, a vibrant port city of 24 million that serves as Pakistan’s economic hub, but which has also been afflicted by terrorism and crime.

She was always “ambitious to work” even though her sisters and mother were housewives, and when she stumbled into accountancy after failing to get into medical school, she found that she had a natural aptitude.

“It happens in life that sometimes you don’t know your potential unless you experience it,” she said.

“My father was a little upset with this male-dominated profession and very reluctant for me to pursue this career,” she said. “But when I started clearing all my papers very quickly, he was very happy, and the first person to let everybody know about it.”

She studied at Premier College, which is linked to Karachi University, and after her initial four year training period joined the First Leasing Corporation Ltd in 1992, where she stayed for 12 years.

Although her managers and colleagues were supportive and she managed to rise to executive director level, the working environment in general was difficult for women.

“The culture here in Pakistan and the environment, it’s not very supportive of females working,” she said. “I am talking about 20 years back when the female to male ratio in this profession was about 2%.”

Working in such a male-orientated field was also difficult at times, she added. “But you know, it entirely depends on how you take it. I was very committed to my work and education. Eventually, it’s the hard work and commitment that pay off.”

But even with commitment it was increasingly difficult to balance her work and home life when she got married and had three children, in a country where family traditions are sacrosanct, and women are expected to bear the burden of responsibility for child-rearing and running the home.

“After my third child, I was finding it very difficult to work because the working hours are very long,” she said. “When you are at work you feel guilty about home and when you are at home you feel bad about wasting your professional education and capabilities. So you are nowhere.”

She decided to quit her job and start her own freelance practice. By the time her children had reached senior school in 2010, it has evolved into her own firm, Usmani and co, in partnership with a former colleague.

They decided to keep the firm all-female. “The main purpose was two-fold; to give qualified females who are going through the same work-life balance issues an opportunity to work at home or with flexible hours, and secondly to provide all types of financial services to women entrepreneurs.”

Usmani’s firm also helps support small and medium-sized enterprises, a goal similar to a recent partnership forged between AAT and the SKANS School of Accountancy based in the northern city of Lahore.

The launch of AAT’s short courses on business skills aim to train accountants to shape businesses in Pakistan’s developing markets, and to ultimately help boost the economy.

Usmani believes women can play a fundamental role in Pakistan’s growth. She said one of her main goals was to use her accountancy skills to help professional women achieve their potential.

“There are so many women who want to work but they don’t have enough financial know-how,” she said. “They don’t have vision or a business plan.”

Culturally, many Pakistani women feel more comfortable talking with another woman about their financial affairs than with a man they do not know well.

Usmani turned this into an opportunity. “We sit with them, convert their vision into a proper business plan, assist them in raising funds for their business and keep strict control over their financial affairs,” she said.

Her own firm has also set a ground-breaking nationwide precedent in the accounting field in the way that it has offered female accountants flexibility.

“At present there are a lot of female qualified chartered accountants who are sitting at home just because of their domestic issues. They don’t have anybody to care for their kids because the daycare concept is not very common here,” she said.

As one solution, her firm started to offer work at home options on accountancy projects. More than 50 women based in Pakistan and around the globe have registered on their system. “They are so happy that at least they are utilising their professional skills,” said Usmani.

Meanwhile her offices in Karachi and Quetta, western Pakistan, offer women the option to work flexi-hours. “They have mobilised themselves after seven or eight years, because they were sitting at home doing nothing and then they got this opportunity and it was fantastic to work again.”

Her initiative earned her a nomination in 2013 as “most inspiring woman” by the US-Pakistan Women’s Council, a forum set up by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to promote female entrepreneurship.

But despite the accolades, Usmani still faces prejudice in her chosen profession.

“There is a general perception that whenever there is a woman professional, it may not be a quality service,” she said. To counter this, her firm obtained a QCR (quality control review) rating from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Pakistan (ICAP).

Usmani helped create a women’s forum at ICAP to encourage more women to enter accountancy. “We are pursuing a women’s seat the council and regional levels to further strengthen women’s confidence in this profession,” she said.

The pace of change in the industry is slow, but Usmani still sees hope.

“The female financial services professionals are very low in number at the moment,” she said, but added: “I am sure they will definitely come. This profession will see more women-owned firms in the years to come.”

AAT has forged a partnership with the SKANS School of Accountancy, based in the northern city of Lahore. AAT’s new short courses on business skills aim to train accountants to shape businesses in Pakistan’s developing markets and to ultimately boost the economy.

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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