ON Wednesday, the United States will see a new point in its history when Kamala Harris is sworn in as the country’s first woman vice president.
Malaysia got there first: Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail became the country’s first woman deputy prime minister under the Pakatan Harapan government until February 2020. But the practice of having a woman deputy premier did not continue, as none of the four senior ministers appointed in place of a deputy prime minister in the Perikatan Nasional government are women.
It is time for us to take proactive measures to ensure more women are placed in leadership positions in politics as well as in the private and public sectors to ensure leadership roles reflect the composition of the Malaysian population. Without fair representation, the voices and interests of women in all sectors will continue to be muffled.
There is a good reason to have more women in decision-making roles. Empirical evidence shows that better female representation in leadership positions brings positive outcomes. The World Bank noted that, on average, publicly traded companies in Malaysia with female board members have a higher profit rate than companies with all-male boards. And a recent study of 194 countries by the Liverpool and Reading universities in Britain showed that the Covid-19 outbreak was better managed in countries led by women.
Dr Shanthi Thambiah, from Universiti Malaya’s Gender Studies programme, observes that while Malaysia is doing quite well compared with global standards, there is still much room for improvement, particularly if we aim to be on par with countries that lead in gender inclusivity – like Australia, Canada and New Zealand – which have topped the Women’s Workplace Equality Index that is organised by the Council on Foreign Relations.
“In Malaysia, the government sector is the one that is contributing to our numbers looking so good because there were targets put in place to move women up into decision-making positions in the government. It is still rather slow in the private sector, ” she says, adding that the 30% target for women in decision-making positions introduced by the government in 2011 needs to be reevaluated and increased.
“Women make up the largest portion of employees in the civil service, and the government is the largest employer of women. So 30% is a decent target to achieve critical mass but because women make up such a large portion of the civil service, we should see bigger numbers in decision-making positions, ” she explains.
Barriers to leadership
One of the biggest hurdles we need to overcome is to challenge the outdated perception that women are homemakers and men are breadwinners.
“It’s not fair to be using those terms in the present time. But this legacy is still a deterrent to women moving up to leadership roles, says Shanthi.
“These days women are still expected to take up this (homemaker) role despite the huge progress women have made in education and in the workforce. The juggling of care work, housekeeping and work is one reason women are not being pushed up to leadership positions.”
This legacy is influencing the people who decide whether to promote a woman to a leadership position or to choose a man instead: “They say that the woman has to take care of her husband and her children, and this becomes a barrier to her promotion.”
A Khazanah Research Institute study released in 2019, Time to Care: Gender Inequality, Unpaid Care Work and Time Use Survey, found that women face a “double burden”, as they carry more responsibilities for unpaid care work despite working similar hours of paid work as men.
A United States-based study by management consulting firm McKinsey, Women in the Workplace 2020, found that mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving during the Covid-19 pandemic.
To address these issues, we need to reassess gender roles at home and in the workforce, and nurture a more inclusive norm where both men and women take up equal shares of care and housework.
Explore female talent
A common and false excuse often given by employers is that there is not enough female talent to justify hiring more women.
Shanthi rubbishes this assumption because the reality is that there is a large number of capable women.
“There is actually enough female talent in the pipeline for us to push them out. Academically, women are doing well and we should be able to find talent from the female pool for positions in decision-making and senior management roles, ” she says.
One of the obstacles to promoting women into leadership positions is, again, the gender-based expectation that women will take up care work, which often keeps them out of the labour force.
In 2019, the World Bank reported that girls generally perform better at school compared with boys. Furthermore, women make up more than 60% of those enrolled in Malaysian public universities and have had a higher enrolment rate since 2000. Debunking widely held stereotypes, the World Bank found that female students not only outperform male students in composite learning outcomes but also in mathematics and science.
Despite this, women comprise only 39% of the total Malaysian labour force. To look at the issue in another way, 80.8% of working- age men were in the labour force in November 2020 compared with 55.1% for women. In 2017, only 22.1% of managers in Malaysia were female, and in 2018, only 15.7% of board members were women in a typical Malaysian public-listed firm.
Another challenge in terms of senior executives is the idea of
the “boy’s club”, which basically means a lot of networking among upper managements is done during closed lunch meetings or activities like golf which is male-dominated.
“Unfortunately, this form of networking is seen as very important in today’s world. This kind of networking usually takes place bet-ween men, and women tend not to be not able to enter these networks, and that leads to a culture of exclusion which discourages women from pursuing powerful positions in the organisation, ” says Shanthi.
To improve women’s representation in leadership roles, we have to overcome gender bias by showing and projecting more female role models.
“We have inspiring female role models who we can look up to and they have managed to excel, like former Bank Negara governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz and Chief Justice Datuk Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat.
“So this gender bias excuse that if you are a woman you have to juggle care work and office work so you will not be able to do work properly, is baseless because whenever you put women in those kinds of senior executive positions, they have been very good at the work they were doing, ” says Shanthi.
Moving forward, Malaysia also needs to focus on equal hiring practices.
A survey by the Women’s Aid Organisation last year found that more than half of Malaysian women have been harassed and judged at work. This includes receiving comments or questions about their marital status or plans to start a family during job interviews, being passed over for promotion in favour of less qualified male colleagues, and being asked to do tasks that are not asked of male colleagues, such as making coffee and preparing refreshments. One in every five women said she was questioned about her ability to perform certain tasks “as a woman”.
These experiences further underscore the need to introduce laws prohibiting discriminations against job seekers.
Some multinational companies are putting in place blind recruitment practices to ensure equitable hiring processes, says Shanthi. Countries like Australia, Austria and Belgium have also introduced equality audits where companies have to report on gender pay gaps. Iceland, for example, has legislated for equal pay standards so if employers are audited for equal pay and found wanting they face a penalty.
“In 2019, Citibank became the first one to publicly release their results on pay equity review. Figures that were released by Citibank Singapore showed that the remuneration for women who were promoted to senior positions did not match those of men, so the bank proactively adjusted the pay of senior women to narrow the wage gap. These are things we can do to improve things in Malaysia, ” she says.
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