Kazakh Women Aspire to Have It All: Family and Career

Kazakh Women Aspire to Have It All: Family and Career

By Makhabbat Sadykova

Astana hosted a two-day forum of talks and workshops dedicated to development of women’s entrepreneurship in Kazakhstan on November 18-19. The speakers of the forum ranged from the UN representatives to Kazakh businesswomen. The event organizer, Merey Mustafina introduced the forum’s topic, ‘Butterfly Effect, Change the Game,’ encouraging women to take initiative in changing rules of the game.


On the first day nearly 300 women gathered from Kazakhstan’s different regions in a new big room of the St. Regis hotel.  The organizers opted for feminine pink colors to represent women entrepreneurship. The organizers set up the event to show that women are just ambitious as men by inviting accomplished Kazakh businesswomen as guest speakers.

The UN women representative to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Elaine Conkievich noted that 44% of small and medium-sized businesses are headed by women in Kazakhstan. Nonetheless, she said that according to the World Bank’s data, women make up only 4% of the CEOs while the gender pay gap is estimated at 33% in Kazakhstan. Kazakh women mostly hold low-level positions in a labor hierarchy. Women make up 70% of the employed people in health care, education and social work. Majority of female employees in Kazakhstan have to work two shifts to make their ends meet, Conkievich said.

Elaine Conkievich highlighted the necessity not only to change the rule of the game but the need to consider women as game changers. For this purpose, businesses should promote gender equality and empower female employees. There are only three companies in Kazakhstan, AB restaurants, Astana Bank and Kazpost, who have adopted the Women’s Empowerment Principles.

During the panel discussions, one of the hottest topics was maintaining a work-family balance in doing business. Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at Nazarbayev University, Loretta O’Donelle brought her own experience into the discussion. The audience reacted well and applauded her after she mentioned she has three daughters. The ovations continued throughout the day every time a speaker mentioned she has a child and/or children.

According to Loretta O’Donelle, there are seasons of intense activity in work as well as seasons of intense activity in a family. “I had supported my husband for many years when he was a CEO of the company.  There were seasons in our marriage of 30 years where his work was important and there were seasons when my work was important. Our three daughters are perfectly civilized human beings who are graduates from different programs and who are all independent financially,” she explained.

Loretta O’Donelle, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at Nazarbayev University


Founder of Women Empowerment Club Tashkent and CEO of the SmartGov Consulting, Aziza Umarova from Uzbekistan joined the discussion via skype. She gave the statistics on female Ivy League graduates becoming housewives if they pursue family right after graduation.

“If a woman starts a family, salaries for early career don’t cover expenses for nannies and private kindergartens. In this respect, if the state wants a woman to do business and reveal her potential, in addition to access to mentoring and funding, the state needs to create conditions that allow a woman to afford a kindergarten,” Umarova said.

She also suggested that flexible work-hours and working from home could be solutions to allowing women to maintain work-family balance. “With proper policy which creates conditions for a mother to spend time with her children after work, many women can have a work-family balance,” she said.

Government support and men’s engagement are key factors affecting women’s involvement in leading roles in the society. “Even if our men are not like Europeans, specifically French and Italians, who can cook just like women do, but both men and women can manage their children’s education which is a huge social responsibility that lies heavily on women’s shoulders today. A father can also teach Math to his children,” Umarova added.

Yevgeny Son, coordinator of the EBRD’s Women in Business programme, proposed inviting men to participate in such discussions next time.

Yevgeny Son, coordinator of EBRD’s Women in Business programme


The Women Entrepreneurship Day forum has created a good platform to encourage women to start businesses and build successful careers without giving up on families. 

WED participants pose for a picture