DESPITE their presence within different tiers of corporate organisations, there is a clear dearth of women in senior decision-making roles in Malaysia.
The numbers look superficially good. According to the Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR): Women in Business 2020,90% of businesses in Malaysia have at least one woman in senior management, above the global percentage of 87%. Women also make up 33% of positions in the senior management teams within companies in Malaysia, above the global percentage of 29%.
However, the IBR report also showed that only 60% of Malaysian businesses are actively working on removing barriers to gender parity at senior levels, the lowest number in Asean. Vietnam has the highest number of businesses taking action at 100% followed by Indonesia at 99%, the Philippines at 94%, Singapore at 77% and Thailand at 69%.
The study also revealed that the top three decision-making roles held by women in the businesses surveyed in Malaysia are human resource directors at 52%, chief financial officers at 29% and chief operating officers at 28%.
“If you look at where women are in positions of leadership in Malaysia, it’s very interesting, ” says Dr Shanthi Thambiah from Universiti Malaya’s Gender Studies programme.
“In this part of the world, women are trusted with money. It’s cultural, I think. We had a female Central Bank governor (Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz) for so many years. If we look at the banking and financial sector, we see a lot of women. A lot of improvement is happening in the banking and financial sector where more women are entering those sectors in large numbers and they are also holding senior management positions, ” she says.
However, Shanthi notes that there are few women CEOs.
“When it comes to positions where the leader has to manage the nitty gritty like operating officers or financial officers, women are seen to be able to do it but in terms of CEOs, who are seen as people who are able to lead the organisation, we still have this perception that men make good leaders and, therefore, they are the ones who are pushed up to play the leadership role. These are perceptions that cannot hold ground in today’s world, ” she says.
Getting into pole positions
The 30% Club Malaysia highlights how numerous studies throughout the years have shown that diverse boards with higher female representation have shown positive results for their organisations.
One of the studies, management consulting firm McKinsey’s Delivering through Diversity 2018, revealed that a greater proportion of women in the leadership of large companies, particularly in senior executive roles where the bulk of strategic and operational decisions are made, showed a positive correlation with the company’s positive financial performance.
The 30% Club is a global business-led campaign promoting diversity and inclusion with a focus on gender balance on boards and C-suites (which refer collectively to corporations’ most important senior executives such as CEO, CFO, and COO). The Malaysian chapter is presently working towards achieving 30% representation of women on the boards of Malaysian government-linked companies and top 300 public listed companies.
The 30% Club Malaysia does not believe that a mandatory quota is necessary to reach the target, but continues to work alongside regulators to increase women’s participation on boards, and with chairs and CEOs of corporations to promote the development of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
“A corporate culture anchored in good corporate governance that includes diversity is key in delivering long term business success, ” says a 30% Club Malaysia spokesperson.
She adds that balanced leadership provides better perspectives, paving the way for the deployment of diverse and innovative solutions, and this includes providing opportunities to build a sustainable pipeline of women leaders.
In addition to working on board representation, the 30% Club Malaysia is also putting more emphasis on establishing and building a strong C-suite of women. Ultimately, this talent pipeline ensures a constant supply of quality, board-ready women.
Challenges still present
Women’s advocacy platform Lean In Malaysia explains there still exists a gender pay gap, cultural stereotyping of women leaders, and stereotyping of gender roles that create challenges for Malaysian women in getting leadership roles.
According to the Statistics Department of Malaysia’s Salaries & Wages Survey Report 2019, median monthly salaries received by male employees was RM2,477 while female employees only received RM2,370. An analysis of the Salaries & Wages Survey Report Malaysia 2018 by Sunday Star shows that the pay gap increases as employees move up to more senior roles, such as professionals (a 15% gap) and managers (a 20.3% gap).
Research by the International Finance Corporation found that women struggle with the stereotype that they are less capable leaders than men, says Lean In Malaysia. Furthermore, it adds that in Asian culture, women returning to the workforce after having children or taking time off to look after elderly parents, is still frowned upon and hence many women are unable to get jobs after a career break.
“However, there have been improvements in this area due to TalentCorp’s Career Comeback Programme initiative. Lean In Malaysia also encourages women to resuscitate their careers through our very own Lean In Career Programmes, ” it says.
(TalentCorp is a Human Resour-ces Ministry agency that works on Malaysia’s talent strategy.)
Lean In Malaysia advocates for all business leaders, regardless of gender, to support gender diversity and, more importantly, gender equality within their organisations.
“Change and cultural transformation truly begins at the top and it is imperative that business leaders implement change in a top-down manner throughout their organisation, ” it says, adding that male colleagues and bosses can also help by supporting their female colleagues and peers should they face workplace discrimination, whether within the organisation or even by people outside the organisation.
“At the individual level, we believe that women need to stand up for themselves and not live according to perceived stereotypes set by society. Women need to support other women instead of just defending their own turf, ” the Lean In spokesperson says.
“Research by the Harvard Business Review last year showed that women actually scored higher than men in leadership skills. According to HBR, women were rated as excelling in taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results, and displaying high integrity and honesty. In fact, they were thought to be more effective in 84% of the competencies frequently measured.
“Lean In Malaysia would like to emphasise that while women need to be recognised for their skills and contributions, it is not about gender superiority over male counterparts, but gender equality in the workplace.”
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