MALAYSIA's female labour force participation stands at only 55.2% – a long way from the male participation rate of 80.4%.
This means that women represent a large untapped resource for Malaysia, and if all economic barriers are removed for women, the World Bank predicts that Malaysia’s income per capita could grow by 26.2%.
Unfortunately, there are many factors holding women back and this contributes to their lower earnings in comparison to men.
“To some extent I think having children has a negative penalty on women, which is really unfortunate because they are as qualified as men, ” says Monash Malaysia’s Vice President (Research and Development) Prof Mahendhiran Sanggaran Nair.
Mahendhiran, who is a data scientist from the university’s Econometrics & Business Statistics department and is also chief executive officer of Monash Malaysia R&D Sdn Bhd, explains that a solution can be found in how some Scandinavian countries approach the matter.
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These countries, which are also facing low population growth, convert that negative penalty to a positive incentive.
Malaysia, which recorded only 1.8 births per woman in 2018 from 4.9 babies per woman in 1970, is likely to face similar population issues within the near future and should act early to address it.
“In these Scandinavian countries, women can still hold on to jobs because the support systems are there to have more children, ” Mahendhiran says.
These incentives include accessible and affordable childcare, flexible working hours, parental leave and the ability for parents to return to their careers after taking time for their families.
“They do not view having children and a family as a penalty on the employers or the economy but actually, they look from a long term perspective that having population growth is important for the growth of all sectors, ” he explains.
For these countries, having children is seen as a long term investment of human capital and so they actively work towards creating a supportive ecosystem for women.
“The [Malaysian] government sector is providing childcare services for civil servants. Some corporate sectors are also providing this service but we do not see that across the board. If employers want to keep the best, most educated, most skillful employees then the support services need to be there, ” he says.
“Incentives and tax reforms need to be given to industries who provide support to women, so that you don’t compromise the productivity of the businesses. It has to be a partnership model, ” he says.
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According to Mahendhiran, companies also stand to benefit when more women are given high-ranking positions in companies.
“Women are leading across the globe in terms of education and training. They are going to be the largest consumer group. Can you imagine what will happen when income levels go up? What better choice can companies make than to have women in decision-making roles to cater to that market? I think the potential is enormous, ” he says.
Men and women, hand in hand for gender equality
Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) Senior Research Associate Rachel Gong believes it is important to educate both men and women to recognise and challenge unspoken gender norms and expectations.
“If a parent has to take time off to look after a young child, why do we just assume that it will be the mother? Why not the father? And if in fact fathers are willing to be more involved in care work, are employers able and willing to support that?” she asks.
What is needed are family-friendly policies in the workplace so that men as well as women can undertake care work and women are not disproportionately bearing that responsibility, says Gong.
A recent KRI report, “Time to care: Gender inequality, unpaid care work and time use survey, ” found that Malaysian women shouldered more responsibility for unpaid care despite working almost the same number of hours as men in paid work in a phenomenon known as the “double burden” or “second shift”.
Gong explains that because gender inequalities are complex and interdependent, isolating the gender wage gap as a point of discussion is a fair starting point but may ultimately be overly specific.
She points out that The World Economic Forum releases an annual global gender gap report that compares gender gaps across four dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health, and political empowerment.
“We want to be improving on all four measures, and on other aspects in which women have been neglected due to a male-dominated perspective, ” she says.
Women have to look to jobs of the future.
According to Mahendhiran, this is because many women are in the service sector, which is increasingly becoming automated.
“Technology is going to be a major disruptor. I think women are going to be most impacted because the biggest sector that is going to be transformed is the service sector, ” he says.
Mahendhiran explains that although many Malaysian women study STEM subjects, many still end up in jobs which are service-driven because of the difficulty they face in finding careers that enable them time for their families.
“If skill sets lag behind the technology wave, you will see that no matter how qualified people are, income levels will remain low if they don’t have the skill sets because technology will replace some of those jobs, ” says Mahendhiran.
He points to service jobs such as toll both operators and fast food workers as occupations which are increasingly being automated.
Mahendhiran explains that women in the workforce, particularly who are in the service sector, must have the ability to move into the other sectors such as manufacturing, design, and development.