Feature: Mind the gap!

  • Focus
  • Sunday, 06 Oct 2019

MALAYSIA has a woman deputy prime minister. We have women in the Cabinet. But there is still a lot more to be done to have gender parity in the general labour force, where women make up only about a third.

“Are women facing challenges? I say yes, ” says Mahuran Saro Sariki, deputy chief executive officer of Talent Corp Malaysia Bhd (TalentCorp), the national agency driving Malaysia’s talent strategy under the aegis of the Human Resources Ministry.

Mahuran says that many women will come to a point in their careers where they have to strike a balance between work and starting a family.

“There are some women who then decide to take a break from the workforce because their support systems are probably not strong. For example, they don’t have access to childcare or their company does not provide flexible work options, ” she says.

Mahuran was responding to the recently released World Bank report, “Breaking Barriers: Toward Better Opportunities for Women in Malaysia”, which highlights the issues faced by women in the labour market.

The report found that although there are more women than men enrolled in tertiary education institutions, and girls generally perform better at school, women comprise only 39% of the total Malaysian labour force.

A lack of accessible and affordable child and elderly care services were found to be among the main reasons keeping women from working.

Acknowledging this limitation, Mahuran says TalentCorp is working at promoting childcare services in the workplace, and helping women who wish to return to their careers after a break by engaging with industries and providing training.

“For smaller businesses like SMEs (small and medium enterprises) that may be unable to provide childcare services, they have to provide an accommodating environment for their staff.

“This can include flexible working hours. Not only for women, but also for men, ” she says, acknowledging the shared responsibility at home.

The government’s policy is for all its agencies and departments to set up childcare centres in their respective offices.

Mahuran herself spent two years out of the workforce to care for her children and understands that returning to one’s career can be challenging.

“When women take a break from the workforce for a few years, the skills that they have from a few years ago may be obsolete. So there is a need to improve on that, ” she says.

Upskilling or re-training for a different sector can help in such situations.

Sharing her own story, Mahuran says that she specialised in Human Relations prior to her career break. However, she began learning about and specialising in economics and the labour market after returning to the workforce.

Among the suggested reforms in the World Bank report are prohibiting the dismissal of pregnant women, requiring 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, providing accessible child and elderly care services, and introducing paid paternity or parental leave.

Mahuran is holding an optimistic view that these reforms are achieveable.

“I would say we can do it. The commitment must be there and that is shown by the current government, ” she says.

Breaking down

gender biasesThe narrative that housework is “woman’s work” has to be changed immediately, says Izza Izelan, executive director of female youth empowerment non-governmental organisation (NGO) Women:girls.

“I urge that we do not make childcare and housework women’s issues, because they are not! They are everyone’s issues.

“Until we can internalise and understand this, no progress will be made, and any kind of system or policy will not be sustainable, ” she told Sunday Star.

Izza explains that both women and men must work hand-in-hand to help women progress.

“If women want to make it at work and still be there for their kids, they have no choice but to multitask and this causes them to become lethargic.

“Lethargy will then lead to women not being able to give 100% in the things they decide to do and, consequently, may cause them to feel like they are not ‘good enough’, ” she says.

This sentiment supports the findings of a Khazanah Research Institute report released on Thursday titled “Time to Care: Gender Inequality, Unpaid Care Work And Time Use Survey” which 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.

Women feel the weight of the burden on their shoulders, and this may deter them from advancing in their careers or become added barriers for them to match men in the workforce, says Izza.

The best way to develop the concept of shared responsibilities is at home through good parenting and in school, she says.

“As children grow up, they look at mothers and fathers managing house chores around them and this is how the profiling or stereotyping process starts for them.

“It is important for parents to demonstrate and instil in their children the spirit of helping each other out and respecting others regardless of their gender or any other intersectionality – this is the core of the gender issues that we are facing, ” she says.

There are many benefits that the country can reap if it looks towards positive childcare solutions. The Khazanah report detailed how higher investment in the care sector could yield considerable returns, including an increase in women’s labour force participation to 63% within five years.

Furthermore, it could potentially create over 16,000 jobs in the childcare industry and increase real gross domestic product (GDP) growth by as much as 0.4% annually.

Apart from recognising carework as a productive sector of the economy, the Khazanah report also suggests the government introduce subsidies to stimulate demand for formal childcare and enact labour policies that encourage mothers and fathers to share care responsibilities.

Need for anti-discrimination law

According to the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), one barrier to women’s workforce participation and career progression is pregnancy discrimination.

“A WAO survey found that over 40% of women had experienced pregnancy discrimination – they were fired, denied promotion, demoted, placed on prolonged probation, and made redundant, ” says Tan Heang-Lee, WAO Advocacy and Communications Officer.

Additionally, about 40% of women surveyed had been asked by job interviewers if they were pregnant or had plans to become pregnant in the near future, says Tan.

“There is currently no law that specifically prohibits gender discrimination or other forms of discrimination in the private sector, ” she explains.

“The Human Resources Ministry has said that the government is still considering the proposed anti-discrimination provision for job seekers in the Employment Act. We urge the government to include the provision in the Employment Act amendments, which are expected to be tabled this month, ” she says.

In her speech at the World Bank Report launch, Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, said that her ministry is in the midst of drafting two pieces of legislation aimed at increasing protection for women: first, a Bill to prohibit all forms of discrimination against women, and second, a Bill to address the issue of sexual harassment within and outside the workplace.

More women leaders

It is essential that more women are placed in decision-making positions because women’s representation in leadership helps ensure decisions and policies are sensitive to women’s needs, says Tan.

“As a case in point, the passing of the Domestic Violence Act in 1994, a landmark advancement of women’s rights in Malaysia was made possible by the leadership of the late Tan Sri Napsiah Omar, the then National Unity and Social Development Minister, who was a fierce advocate for women’s rights, ” she explains.

According to the World Bank report in 2017, only 22.1% of managers in Malaysia were female, and in 2018, only 15.7% of board members were women at a typical Malaysian public-listed firm.

On a national policymaker level, while the Pakatan Harapan government has five women as full ministers and four as deputies in its Cabinet, it still falls short of the 30% representation quota that it set for itself.

Having women in decision-making positions is not just for optics. Tan describes how women in leadership positions also break ground and act as role models to other women and girls.

“Seeing someone like themselves in leadership positions helps women and girls envision themselves as leaders too and expands their imagination of what they could be, ” she says.

Getting women back to work

Because many women face challenges when trying to return to the workforce, it is not only important to assist them by removing barriers but supportive policies should also be introduced, says women’s advocacy platform Lean In Malaysia.

“Pro women policies are important as catalysts to ensure women, or talent in general, are retained in the workforce, ” says Abir Abdul Rahim, co-founder and director of Lean In Malaysia, a non-profit organisation that works to educate and empower women.

Abir says that some women feel a lack of confidence due to their absence from their field of work for a while.

“They tend to worry that they might not be up to date on developments in their profession or industry, and they worry this may impact their level of employability, ” she says, adding that this then creates self-doubt and becomes a barrier to relaunching their careers.

Many employers are also unconsciously biased when they see a gap in a woman’s resume and her chances of being hired are lowered, Abir explains.

This is where groups like Lean In can help by teaching women who took a break how to relaunch their careers via masterclasses, workshops, dialogues and other programmes.

Encourage caring corporations

There is an urgent need for top level commitment in order to realise the diversity agenda, says Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar, chairman of the Institute of Corporate Directors Malaysia.

“Chairmen and CEOs must make gender diversity a component of their business strategy and ensure appropriate policies are in place to retain, develop and promote women into senior roles, ” the former Securities Commission Malaysia chairman tells Sunday Star.

Apart from providing flexible work hours, extended parental leave and care services, Zarinah says that the board and management of companies can also institutionalise the need for gender diversity through policies, setting targets for the company, and measuring the performance of managers.

“During my time in Shell, country chairmen were held accountable for delivering on gender diversity targets, ” says Zarinah, who spent more than two decades with the oil and gas giant.

She explains that gender diversity has to be addressed in the same way as companies address other key business goals.

“A gender diverse board is a business imperative. And that’s why investors are increasingly holding boards to account on diversity and inclusiveness.

“Major institutional shareholders are beginning to vote against male candidates to all male boards, ” she says.

One of the initiatives that took off during Zarinah’s time in Shell was the creation of the Shell Women’s Action Network (Swan), which was a forum that connected the women in Shell.

“We also worked closely with management to develop female talents through mentoring, identified women role models that young women could aspire to, got advice and networked on a social basis, ” she says, adding that Swan also organised speaking engagements, awareness sessions and lobbied for changes in human resources policies to help retain women in the workforce.

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