Uzma is Cambridge International’s Country Director for Pakistan, based in Islamabad. She tells us about balancing her career with family life, tackling self-doubt, and doing what feels right.
How did you start out in your working life?
I am lucky to have a career I am passionate about, and even luckier considering I fell into my work through a series of lucky accidents. Succeeding with serendipity may not make for a very saleable self-help book, but it is the truth of my early career. After university I started with an internship in a newspaper, followed by work at a development agency and while working on my university applications for the UK in the search of a scholarship, I got a chance to work with the British Council in Islamabad in the EducationUK division. This was the formal start of my working life. So, it was the search for a scholarship that effectively set me off on my apprenticeship to my current position.
What has helped you get to this point in your career?
As a child of a military family, my three brothers and I lived in a number of cities in the remotest parts of the country in northwest Pakistan, places which are no longer accessible following global and local effects of the war on terror. My parents never saw me as a girl to be treated differently, we were all equals, and we all had to work hard to make something of our lives – I was not an exception and that made all the difference. My husband is equally supportive and takes my career as seriously as his own (although he has for years insisted that he wants to transition himself into being a professional sofa tester). I guess what I am trying to say here is that it’s been important for me that my family has supported me in my goals, actively creating space and leaning in when necessary.
I think the circumstances of my schooling were also very helpful: we went to school in the tribal areas and outposts of the settled country, changing about eight schools in ten years. In grade ten we had to travel an hour and a half with armed guards to get to school. Life was great and adventurous but not always easy. Living in such places also gave me a lot of insight into our society’s attitudes towards women, and heavily gendered roles. It was worlds apart from the more developed parts of the country. It made me more determined to have my own identity as an individual. The lessons I learnt in the process helped me immensely in my working life. It helped me understand and work with people from different backgrounds and cultures, to understand different perspectives and relate to those around me with empathy.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced and how did you manage this?
The biggest challenge I have had in my working career when I started out about fifteen years ago was to be taken seriously. When I went for interviews people just did not think I actually meant it when I said my first priority in life is to establish my career (things have changed rapidly over the past decade and a half). Careers for women were more stratified then in many cities outside major metropolises like Karachi, with medicine being the capstone of what one could achieve. Being taken seriously back then also meant assuring employers you were in it for the long haul, that this was not a detour before marriage. Women’s advancement in management has been very helpful in expanding the footprint of women.
Looking back, what advice would you give now to your younger self?
Looking back, I would tell myself to worry less about what others think and do what I think is right. We sometimes lose precious time and opportunities being apprehensive about what the world will think, only to realise later that it’s only a very few opinions and people that actually matter in life. When you believe in yourself and stay honest to yourself and others, everything falls into place eventually.
Which of your achievements at Cambridge Assessment are you most proud of?
I think it’s been the recruitment and expansion of our team in Pakistan. Our workload is heavy, but work isn’t drudgery if you like and admire your colleagues.
How do you achieve work-life balance?
Being a mother of seven-month-old twins and looking after one of Cambridge’s biggest regions makes work-life balance a bit of a juggling act, but it’s achievable most days. I am fortunate to be working with a great organisation which really supports women in their careers. My team in Pakistan and Cambridge are fantastic. They have celebrated the arrival of Malala and Daud just as much as my family and kept cheering me up throughout my pregnancy and maternity leave. The support and encouragement I received during this time made a world of difference. I have the option of working from home when I need it and that flexibility really helps make everything work.
What’s the one tip you’d give women looking to progress in their career?
The one thing I would say to them is to believe in themselves. It’s not going to be easy at times but if you persevere you will get through it. Never give up. Also, help other women out. And remember, behind every successful person there is a hidden chamber of inner monologue with reams of self-doubt. We’ve all been there; we will still go there – but it’s important to remember that you can silence the voices of self-sabotage with a leap of faith.
What challenge are you most looking forward to in the coming year?
To orchestrate a family photo where my twins are not trying to scratch each other’s faces!