The phenomenal rise of Pakistan’s only female banking CEO

Sima Kamil recognises that she has a responsibility that goes beyond her job

by Chris Kay & Faseeh Mangi / BLOOMBERG

Sima Kamil (picture) is a reluctant role model in Pakistan. The 61-year-old CEO walks into a 21st-floor meeting room at United Bank Ltd’s (UBL) headquarters in Karachi and right away says she doesn’t want to be viewed as a “token” woman and would prefer to discuss the bank’s strategy.

Yet, she recognises that as the only woman heading a private sector lender in Pakistan — and one of the very few women leading companies in the country — she has a responsibility that goes beyond her job.

“It’s a privilege and a burden at the same time,” she says in an interview in a building overlooking the sandstone school her father attended, amid the urban sprawl of the nation’s largest city.

“They roll you out. I’ve tried to avoid that and it’s not always easy; some people feel I should do it because it’s part of my duty, so there’s a balance to be struck.”

Kamil’s rise through the ranks of Pakistan’s intensely male-dominated banking industry in the conservative Islamic republic is nothing short of extraordinary.

Her appointment last year was a further milestone in a country that became the first Muslim-majority nation to elect a female prime minister, yet where about one-fifth of all women marry before they turn 18 and many still face routine domestic violence and repression.

Women from Pakistan’s elite have long held high political office. The most prominent was former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who hailed from a dynastic feudal family and was assassinated in 2007.

From a less privileged background, Kamil’s path to the top came with considerable family support.

Only 16% of UBL’s employees are women and most are found in branches

Sleepy Port City

Kamil’s father grew up in Karachi when it was a sleepy port city before Pakistan’s violent partition with India in 1947. Her mother’s side of the family was uprooted during the tumultuous separation.

They travelled from Eastern Punjab to Lahore by train — a mode of transport that routinely led to some of the worst ethnic violence during the period.

Surviving the move, her maternal family intently focused on education. Kamil’s mother studied philosophy at college and her father met his future wife at a poetry reading in Lahore.

Her mother continued to enjoy and compose Urdu poetry and demanded the best schooling for her son and daughter. “She was the driving force,’’ Kamil said.

Kamil enrolled at Karachi Grammar School, one of the city’s most prestigious establishments. Listing Margaret Atwood and Graham Greene as authors she enjoys, she became a keen student of literature and history.

“If I had my wish those are what I would have studied and that is still what I read; I never read books on economics,” she said. Her family wasn’t wealthy and “didn’t have the luxury to send me off” to study arts or humanities.

Kamil moved to London and acquired an MBA (Master of Business Administration) from City University. Though she won a place to study development economics at Oxford her family couldn’t afford it. Instead, she returned to Pakistan to work for American Express Co in Karachi. About three years later, Kamil landed a job at ANZ Grindlays Bank first in Karachi and then Lahore.

The move to the other city upset her parents as it’s rare even today for women in Pakistan to live alone. Most reside with their family until they are married and even then many continue to live at home or move in with their in-laws.

Success came from Kamil’s abilities to galvanise her troops, according to 3 former colleagues

Kamil’s ascent is all the more remarkable given the slow pace of progress for women in Pakistan. Just 22% of the nation’s female population is employed.

That’s up only slightly from 20% in 2008, according to World Bank data; it compares to 24% in India and a 43% average rate in East Asia and the Pacific. Violence against women is common and human rights organisations estimate about 1,000 so-called “honour killings” occur annually in Pakistan, though legislation was passed in recent years to protect women.

“To pass a bill is nothing,” said Khush Bakht Shujat, a 69-year-old senator from Karachi and one of Pakistan’s first female TV anchors.

In many households men aren’t educated and “sometimes they are hiding behind religion, sometimes they are hiding behind rituals”.

Nonetheless, Kamil was ambitious and rose through the ranks at ANZ Grindlays, spending two years in the mid-1990s in Melbourne. She moved again to Pakistan to become head of credit and then corporate regional executive before the lender’s takeover by Standard Chartered plc in 2000.

In 2001, it was at Habib Bank Ltd, the nation’s largest lender, that she found her mentor, Rafiuddin Zakir Mahmood, who was CEO until 2012. She was hired to run a regional corporate banking unit and was promoted to head the division in 2004.

‘Shocked Everybody’

Kamil’s education gave her a reputation as an upper-class, English-speaking Pakistani. So, in bank branches, Mahmood sought to see if Kamil could connect with the work force and had her converse with staff who spoke only Urdu and Punjabi.

After Kamil passed those tests, Mahmood promoted her to head the lender’s branch network in 2011. In that role, she managed thousands of employees, which was “unheard of for a woman”, Kamil said. “It shocked everybody in the bank because they thought I couldn’t do it.”

She brought about the highest annual average current account deposit growth in the industry, placing it first among Pakistan’s banks.

With her eye on the top job, Kamil was appointed CEO last year at the lender’s main rival UBL — whose headquarters is a stone’s throw away. “It’s always an ambition for anyone who is in senior management at a bank,” she says.

She acknowledges obstacles, yet says she wasn’t treated in a sexist way.

“Sexism is you can’t do this because you’re a woman, I have not encountered that,” she said. “But, yes, as a woman when you go in a new role you get tested and people take a bit of time if they are not used to working with women to relate to you.”

Success came from Kamil’s abilities to galvanise her troops, according to three former colleagues, who asked not to be identified so they could speak freely about Kamil. She wasn’t authoritarian and gained respect through her focus and drive, they said.

In Kamil’s own words, she rewards outperformers, while being clear about expectations and holding conferences with those who fall behind. An early riser in a country with a latenight culture where dinners and gatherings finish after midnight, Kamil starts sending emails at 6:30am, sometimes to the annoyance of her colleagues.

On the weekends, Kamil likes to cook with her husband, a lawyer she married 12 years ago. Kamil has a 30-year-old stepdaughter who now lives in the US and has had the “luxury” to study history and English at university in the UK. “We’re very proud of her; she would never work in a bank,’’ Kamil laughed.

Some cultural norms in Pakistan are slowly changing. The #MeToo movement has resonated within the country, across social media and in marches in cities, though Kamil said that has been only for “the high level, the elite or whatever you want to call them”, For women in lower classes or in rural areas it’s harder to speak out, she said.

Lax Enforcement

Gender employment laws in Pakistan are laxly enforced, from the 10% female staff quota in the public sector to the requirement that corporate boards must have at least one woman.

There are only six women in Pakistan who have reached the highest pay grade in the public sector and prejudice over domestic roles means many women aren’t promoted, says Farzana Bari, a former director of the Gender Studies department at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University.

“They will not actually open gates for them,” Bari says. “The state has responsibilities through affirmative action.”

Kamil acknowledges that’s also the case at her bank. While higher than the public sector requirement, only 16% of UBL’s employees are women and most are found in branches.

She wants to raise that number to about 25%. She also said there is no gender pay gap at the bank “if women meet the mark”.

“We need to make sure that we can encourage them to come into middle and senior management roles,” Kamil said in a Bloomberg Television interview last Thursday. “That’s our challenge.”

She also aims to double current account deposits to 920 billion rupees (RM55.2 billion) within five years in a country where only 13% of the more than 200 million population has a bank account. Many are bullish and the bank has 16 analyst ‘Buy’ ratings, the most among the Pakistan’s largest banks, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Yet Kamil says her task at the 59-year-old lender has barely begun. And while she may have changed some perceptions of what women can do in Pakistan, Kamil thinks merit will make her a better role model.

“That will take a bit of time, respect is not earned in a year — if I give results then that will be far more powerful for women than just saying she got there,” Kamil says before she walks out to her next meeting — where she will be the only woman. — Bloomberg