Woman power: (From left) Mehwish Ayyub from Lean In Pakistan, Wenny, Rena Suzuki from Lean In Tokyo, Abir, Chen, Virginia Tan from Lean in China and Sadaffe Abid from Kashf Foundation Pakistan posing for a group photograph during the Lean In summit in Kuala Lumpur.
KUALA LUMPUR: With only RM500 each in pocket, Abir Abdul Rahim and Sarah Chen were inspired to start Lean In Malaysia, a group of women that support the pursuit of each other’s ambitions.
That was last year, and now the group has evolved into a platform to inspire women to become leaders.
Inspired by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, Abir and Chen saw how tempting it was for women “to lean back”, to stay within their comfort zones and give in to societal pressures.
Their internal alarm bells rang when they saw how many Malaysian women dropped out of the workforce after they turned 30.
At the second annual Lean In summit yesterday, they invited speakers from across Asia to share their stories and insights as women in power.
UN Women Nepal Director Wenny Kusuma spoke about giving women a chance, stressing that women have to support other women in their advancement. She said that historically, men listen to men, and women also listen to men, because men have always occupied the leadership position.
“As part of a community, we have a responsibility to stand behind our beliefs that women deserve a chance, not after men have had their chance but right now.
“How do we change societal norms? We have to change it at an individual level, we have to speak up,” she said.
Social activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir said Malaysia looks good on the surface.
“You see a lot of women out there, you see a lot of women in universities and a lot of women working and that’s been great.”
But Marina sees a deeper problem in the country, as although 70% of university students are women, 40% of them do not enter the workforce, according to the Performance Management and Delivery Unit.
“That’s almost half, and a full 25% of those who entered will drop out after three years; that’s another big loss,” she said.
She said there was an unconscious bias when companies decide to hire.
“When there is a male and a female candidate, both equally qualified, the male gets the job,” she said.
Marina explained that it was due to a few factors, including the fact that companies expect the female candidate to drop out of the workforce eventually because of marriage and child bearing.