Over 50% of women have been harassed and judged at work, survey finds


According to WAO, the survey results support the critical need for policy change, including passing amendments to the Employment Act 1955 in the next Parliament session. Photo: 123rf.com

More than 50% of the women surveyed said they have experienced at least one form of gender discrimination in the workplace, according to Women’s Aid Organisation'a (WAO) Voices of Malaysian Women On Discrimination and Harassment in the Workplace survey.This includes receiving comments or questions about their marital status or plans to start a family, being passed over for promotion in favour of less qualified colleagues, and being asked to do tasks that are not asked of male colleagues, such as making coffee and preparing refreshments.

The survey, in collaboration with research agency Vase.ai, collected insights from 1,010 Malaysian women and sought to understand the prevalence of and women’s experience with workplace harassment and discrimination.

WAO’s Head of Campaigns Natasha Dandavati says that of the women surveyed, 47% said that they were asked about their marital status during a job interview, while one in every five women (20%) said they were questioned on their ability to perform certain tasks “as a woman”.

“About 55% said their child’s father was given either less than one week of paternity leave or no paternity leave at all, with 55% of women indicating that the given paternity leave was insufficient, ” she shares.

About 27% of the women surveyed who have children said they received comments and questions about their ability to perform certain tasks while they were pregnant.

Another 23% said that after having a child and returning to work, they received negative comments about leaving work on time to get home to their child; 13% were overlooked for new projects or opportunities upon returning from maternity leave.

According to WAO, the survey results support the critical need for policy change, including passing amendments to the Employment Act 1955 in the next Parliament session.

“There is a need for provisions to protect against [gender] discrimination, as well as for longer maternity and paternity leave, and other policies that allow for the more equal sharing of care responsibilities that facilitate women staying in the workforce, ” says WAO executive director, Sumitra Visvanathan.

Respondents of the survey were aged between 24 to 55 years old and were quota sampled according to census statistics on race and region by gender. The respondents were also required to be active in the workforce within the last five years.

Discrimination, harassment, and the greater unpaid care burden on women, Sumitra explains, are among the common reasons for women’s low participation in the workforce, and these affect both women employees as well as women seeking employment.

Aligned with the findings of the survey, WAO is reiterating its call for five key amendments to the Employment Act 1955 in the current Parliament sitting: at least seven days of paid paternity leave in the private sector; extending paid maternity leave in the private sector from 60 to 90 days; introducing prohibitions against discrimination based on gender, race, religion, and disability status for employees and job seekers.

More than 20% of the women surveyed said that upon returning from maternity leave they received cooments about leaving work on time to get home to their child. FilepixMore than 20% of the women surveyed said that upon returning from maternity leave they received cooments about leaving work on time to get home to their child. Filepix

Women also need the right to request for flexible working hours while being protected from discrimination as a result of doing so and strengthening protections against sexual harassment in the Employment Act 1955, in addition to the passing of an independent Sexual Harassment Act.Creating awareness

The findings of the survey also showed a lack of understanding about what constitutes harassment, pointing further to a need to advocate for amendments to the laws as a way of creating public awareness about consent and also what constitutes appropriate behaviour.

In the survey, 71% of women said they had heard about or thought that sexual harassment is an issue, and 21% said they have encountered a form of sexual harassment before and think it is a real issue. Only 2% have not heard of sexual harassment.

However, 52% of women do not see the act of suggesting that a co-worker make advances towards a client or potential client, as sexual harassment. 15% do not consider unwelcome touching or grabbing to be a form of sexual harassment but classify it as unprofessional behaviour.

Also, 50% of women do not consider repeatedly making advances towards a person who has already declined them to be a form of sexual harassment but classify it as unprofessional behaviour. 42% of women do not consider the act of stalking, to be a form of sexual harassment – they classify it as unprofessional behaviour.

Deputy executive director of WAO Yu Ren Chung says that once there is a law that defines and outlines what sexual harassment is, awareness will increase.

“The first step is reforming our laws and policies. We need to pass a Sexual Harassment Act, which defines what sexual harassment is. We also need to pass amendments to the Employment Act 1955, which would state what discrimination is.

“As laws are changed and enforced, more people will adhere to these new standards. This in itself will improve norms and understanding.

“But of course, amending laws and policies are not enough. This needs to be followed by mass communication efforts, and capacity building at the company and community levels, ” says Yu.

The proposed Sexual Harassment Bill is expected to provide a more comprehensive definition of sexual harassment and a more effective mechanism to lodge complaints. It will also propose remedial elements and penalties.

A law could also mandate that all companies have proper mechanisms to protect employees and deal with harassment.

Presently, the Human Resource Ministry has a Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace but it is not binding.

The complete survey results are available at: https://vase.ai/resources/womens-rights/.

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