IT WAS not the usual chill-out Friday on Oct 11,2019. Rather, it was a day that all tax professionals, including myself awaited in high anticipation for the Budget 2020 proposals speech.
The announced initiatives were somewhat expected to support the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030. What was even more interesting and surprising was the extent the Budget initiatives made for women.
In the olden times when agriculture was the primary occupation, the images of labourers at work have traditionally been biased towards men occupied with heavy and physical tasks.
Then came the Industrial Revolution. It changed what work meant for both men and women. Social and economic developments spurred the change in the nature of women’s work. What men used to do can now be done by women, but unfortunately hired at lower salaries in some instances.
The Minister of Finance articulated in his Budget Speech on the gender gap in our employment. The female labour force participation rate continues to stagnate at around 55%, far from the Government’s target of 60%.
The Minister of Finance shared a recent World Bank study which concluded that our country’s income per capita can grow by 26.2% if all barriers against Malaysian women are removed and women’s participation in our economy is increased.
We cheered (and I sure did) when we saw more women representation in the cabinet line-up under the new Government. We had our first women Deputy Prime Minister, Chief Justice and Chief Commissioner of MACC.
The initiatives in Budget 2020 under Women@Work where monetary incentives and income tax exemption are made available to women returning to work are most welcoming. Needless to say, the extended maternity leave from 60 to 90 days is a definite bonus, as mothers will be able to have a greater time for bonding with their newborns, as well as recuperate (and to the much relief for the Dad!).
I recall the first time we heard of an initiative for women was at the 2011 Budget Speech. It was then proposed to achieve a 30% target for women in company leadership and decision-making positions.
There was also the call for 30% representation for women on boards by 2020, failing which the name of the listed company will be published in the media.
Concurrently, the board target was also outlined in the Malaysian Code on Corporate Governance in 2017. Interestingly, the Securities Commission set a target of its own for the top 100 companies to have no all-male boards by the end of 2018 (which at that time, women held 23.7% of top 100 listed company board seats.)
We have seen recent insurgence of local training programmes, seminars and mentorship programs established by organisations and associations to increase the number of women serving on boards in Malaysia.
LeadWomen brings female candidates and corporates together to facilitate the placement of women in senior leadership and board positions while also providing coaching, conferences and 6-month global programmes to help prepare women for board service.
I had the honour to be part of the mentor faculty for LeadWomen and in my course of interaction with my mentees, I realise that these women indeed have the spark and perspective to succeed. They only need to be given a chance to be heard.
With so many inclusive initiatives for women, this begets the question - Why so much fuss over women? and are we then being fair to our men?
Have we become a society that have totally neglected how women can equally contribute to the society? Have we progressed to such a state that we need to implement initiatives to remind ourselves that women, or working women are not superwomen, and that they need as much support from all stakeholders?
Former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard rightyfully said in an interview with the Guardian, that gender equality is not a “women’s issue”.
Indeed, why should flexi work arrangements be targeted for women only? Can we not encourage more men to take on part-time and flexible work? Gillard cites that research links flexible working hours to increased productivity, as better work-life balance leads to happier, more effective workers.
In that same article, a study of German couples was also shared. It was found that having a partner who works flexibly, boosted the wages of both men and women, with the effect most pronounced for mothers.
Conversely, women whose partners work very long hours are significantly more likely to quit the labour force – taking their talent and experience with them.
Sweden and Norway show us that the introduction of the “daddy quota” – the period of parental leave reserved specifically for fathers – has a positive effect on male take-up of parental leave, consequently leading to men’s long-term involvement in household work and childcare.
This reaps economic dividends, as women’s talents are no longer lost to the labour force. Research has also shown that having an involved father will have a positive impact on children’s wellbeing.
My note to the Minister of Finance: perhaps something for the men next year in a similar context?
Kudos to the Minister of Finance for a well thought Budget 2020 for women. It is without doubt that women may well be the dominant source of economic growth in the near future — and organisations that are able to capitalise on the roles women play as economic actors will most likely have a competitive advantage.
It may just be time to revisit the phrase “Behind every successful man is a woman”.
Ang Weina is global employer services leader of Deloitte Malaysia