While many Malaysian mothers are supportive of work from home options, we mustn’t ignore the additional burdens that come with it, especially since these burdens weigh disproportionately on women. As we celebrate Mother’s Day this year, let’s look at what other steps Malaysia can take to further support and empower working mothers.
BEFORE Covid-19 struck, many parents had been calling for employers to introduce flexible working hours to support a healthy work-life balance for employees with children. When most companies were forced to pivot digitally and implement work from home (WFH) systems after the pandemic hit, many thought this would be a good opportunity for parents to use this new working arrangement to their advantage.
However, things did not necessarily improve. Although WFH came with flexibility and the ability to be closer to their children, many mothers have found themselves overwhelmed with the large amount of housework and care responsibilities that they found themselves taking on in addition to their jobs. This includes overseeing their children’s online learning and other schoolwork at home with the closure of schools due to the pandemic.
A lot of the pressure on mothers can be attributed to patriarchal cultures where women are generally expected to take up most of the domestic unpaid responsibilities, despite also being part of the workforce. Unfortunately, this burden is not generally expected of in male partners.
A University of Pennsylvania study published in March found that mothers ended up bearing most of the increased domestic work since WFH was introduced. Meanwhile, a United-States Pew Research Center survey conducted in October 2020 on parents who WFH found that mothers are twice as likely to have a lot more child care responsibilities during the pandemic compared to fathers. The study also found that working mothers are more likely to find that managing work-family balance had gotten harder over the pandemic compared to working fathers.
A United Kingdom-based study published by the Public Library of Science (Plos) supports these findings. The paper titled “Gender differences in unpaid care work and psychological distress in the UK Covid-19 lockdown, ” found that women spent much more time on unpaid care work than men during the quarantine, and mothers were more likely to reduce working hours or change their working schedules to accommodate increased childcare compared to fathers.
This situation also happens locally.
A Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) study, “Time to care: Gender inequality, unpaid care work and time use survey”, released in October 2019 before the Covid-19 outbreak, found that women face a “double burden” of family and career – they shouldered more responsibility for unpaid care despite working almost the same number of hours as men in paid work. It also highlighted the affordability and accessibility issue of childcare services in the country.
Following that, a KRI article published in April 2020, a month after the movement control order (MCO) was announced, titled, “Household Production, Gender Inequality and the Movement Control Order”, highlighted how the household tasks for women have become more frequent and more intense compared to men during quarantine.
While many Malaysian mothers are supportive of WFH options, we mustn’t ignore the additional burdens that come with it, especially since these burdens are disproportionately weighed on women. Crucially, we need to take the necessary steps to further support and empower working mothers.
Supportive employers and spouses
Although there are many benefits to working from home, one drawback is that work can bleed into personal time, and personal time bleeds into working time, says thirty-two-year old marketing analyst Octavia Yeo, who has been working from home since even before the first MCO.
One challenge Yeo faced was caring for her 18-month-old son was when he had a fever and had to be quarantined due to risk of Covid-19 exposure. At the time, Yeo had no choice but to use up all her annual leave to look after him.
“Many employers expect that you will be able to take care of your child with WFH but taking care of a child is a full-time job in itself. When my son fell sick I was hoping that I could use up my sick leave, but instead of deducting from the parents’ sick leave, my employers took it from my annual leave, ” she explains.
“People think taking leave is like taking vacation but it is not the case at all. If we are already allocated sick leave, why can’t parents use it for when they have to care for their sick children?” she asks.
Yeo also believes there needs to be a cultural change on the duties of fathers and mothers, with fathers playing an equally active role in childcare and household duties.
“Luckily enough, my husband does not expect me to take up all the things that a wife is traditionally expected to do like cooking or cleaning. My husband is also working flexi-hours and we take turns taking care of our son, and in doing house chores, ” she says.
While Yeo understands the need to close schools during the pandemic, she also thinks that there should be an option to keep daycares open.
“I’m very confident to send my son to the daycare during the pandemic. There also are generally fewer people in daycares compared to schools. But when there is a blanket statement saying that everything must shut down, I have no choice but to adjust my working situation with my husband to ensure someone can take care of our son, ” says Yeo, who praised her son’s daycare for their good management and strict adherence to SOPs.
Better parental leave options
Content writer Izzati Hashim, 28, suggests that employers introduce additional half-pay or unpaid leave options for new mothers beyond the allocated 90 days to help them in their careers.
“Many women have to return to work just three months after giving birth due to financial reasons or in order to keep their jobs. For myself, I took three months of paid compulsory leave, and another two months of unpaid leave. Being able to WFH on most days has really helped me, ” say Izzati, who has a six-month-old daughter.
“While it is currently at the discretion of employers whether or not to give extended maternity leave, the Government could give incentives to employers in order to encourage them to offer a better parental leave system to employees, ” she says.
“After all, the Health Ministry recommends mothers to breastfeed exclusively for six months after birth, but this is really difficult to do when you’re working full time away from the baby. Currently, there are too many roadblocks in the way and both the Government and employers could do better, ” she says.
Izzati supports introducing flexi hours for those who want to work fulltime or even give the option to work on a part-time basis.
Like Yeo, Izzati also believes that we need to dismantle archaic gendered roles that burden mothers with most care and housework.
Since Izzati’s husband is also working fully from home, he is able to look after their daughter on days that she has to be out on the field for work. On days that the both of them are working from home, childcare duties are shared.
“This is a very important element to have because allowing both parents to WFH whenever possible gives us an opportunity to equally share childcare responsibilities. Countries like Finland have an enviable parental leave system that is based on equality, ” says Izzati.
“No one asks the husband how he is going to balance working full time and being a parent, but mothers get asked that all the time. We see great results when both parents share that responsibility, which we are able to do because we have supportive employers.”