Advancing social protections to bring diversity and inclusion for women in Malaysia’s workforce

RECENTLY, Khazanah Research Institute reported that although females outnumbered males in terms of enrollment in higher education, higher shares of male enter work right after graduation when compared with their female counterparts. In terms of finding qualified jobs, female graduates are also disproportionately affected by over-qualification, with more than half of them employed in low or semi-skilled positions in 2021.

These are recent data suggesting that gender disparities persist in the transition from education to the workforce and hamper diversity in the workplace. According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, as of February 2024, Malaysia’s female labour force participation rate stands at 56.5 percent, while the male labour force participation rate is 83.1 percent.

As women enter the workforce, they face several vulnerabilities which impedes their long-term participation in the labour force and contribute to the widening gender pay gap.

Women make a temporary exit from the workforce for childbearing and face the risk of income loss during their postpartum recovery period, often leading some to permanently exit the workforce to prioritise essential caregiving responsibilities. According to statistics from the Department of Labour Peninsular Malaysia (JTKSM), in 2023, a total of 58,999 local workers were terminated from their jobs, 40 percent were female workers.

Meanwhile, for the period from January 1, 2024 to February 29, 2024, the total number of local workers involved in terminations was 9,432 individuals, with 37.5 percent being female workers. However, there is no data to verify if the women quit their jobs after getting married or giving birth.

Reintegration opportunities

In addressing challenges faced by women, the Social Security Organisation (Perkeso) plays a crucial role in supporting their access to employment opportunities and reintegration into the workforce through its comprehensive employment services.

Since 2007, Perkeso has been actively involved in the employment, re-employment and training programmes for beneficiaries, irrespective of gender. By end of 2019, it was further rebranded to MYFutureJobs, solidifying its role as the national employment services provider catering to diverse jobseekers, a mantle it has proudly upheld ever since. Since 2020, MYFutureJobs has facilitated over 490,000 women seeking employment to work in various industries and has linked more than 1.3 million female job seekers with job opportunities nationwide via its job matching portal.

The caregiver’s shift

Women’s career progression is also negatively impacted when women are required to juggle disproportionate caregiving responsibilities, leading to a significant imbalance in their ability to fully commit to and advance in their professional endeavors.A good example to demonstrate this situation is to examine the women career progression rate in Malaysia’s public sector. There are more than 60 percent of women in public administration at lower levels but at the highest management level, women make up only 42 percent, indicating a significant disparity in representation as one moves up the hierarchy.

Despite comprising the majority of the workforce, women continue to face barriers to accessing top leadership positions, often encountering systemic biases, limited opportunities for advancement and entrenched gender stereotypes.

Employers frequently view women with family obligations as possible detractors for future performance, unjustly impeding their opportunities for advancement.

Datuk Seri Dr Mohammed Azman Aziz Mohammed is the chief executive officer of the Social Security Organisation (Perkeso). Dr Azman started his career in 1993 as a medical doctor, and in 2001, he became the first medical doctor employed by Perkeso.Datuk Seri Dr Mohammed Azman Aziz Mohammed is the chief executive officer of the Social Security Organisation (Perkeso). Dr Azman started his career in 1993 as a medical doctor, and in 2001, he became the first medical doctor employed by Perkeso.

In this regard, Perkeso is considering a different approach to retain women in the workforce, particularly women in their childbearing years. One of the strategies includes supporting women work and life balance by integrating maternity cash benefits and parental leaves into Perkeso’s social insurance framework. Currently, the fiscal responsibility for maternity benefits and parental leave exclusively falls on the employers. These financial obligations, however, are ultimately transferred to women in the form of increased barriers to entry into the labour market.

Given women’s predominant role in caregiving, the absence of female employee and frequent leave are perceived by employers as supplementary costs, potentially dissuading them from hiring female employees in the first place.

The idea to redistribute the expenses associated with childbirth among active contributors in the workforce aims to ease the financial strain experienced by employers and employees during maternity periods and parental leaves.

This proposed policy was included in the Government’s Budget 2023, and the amendment of the Employment Insurance System (EIS) Act is presently being examined by the Human Resource Ministry (Kesuma) to establish reliable maternity benefits.

An inclusive approach

In terms of promoting diversity and inclusivity in the workplace, Perkeso advocates a more inclusive hiring approach by encouraging the employment of female vulnerable groups. Under the Budget 2024 Daya Kerjaya initiative, employers receive incentives to hire women with disabilities, elderly and retired women, as well as female ex-convicts.

By actively promoting the hiring of vulnerable groups, Perkeso not only advocates for equal opportunities in the workforce but addresses systemic barriers that vulnerable individuals often face when participating in the workforce.

Moreover, recognising the potential benefits that diverse talent can bring to the organisation is essential to drive organisational success.

As holistic policymakers, we must not discount the social protection aspects for women who embark into the informal sector. Almost 58 percent of freelancers are women and the reasons for women venturing into self-employment are broadly influenced by family structures, marital status and as an additional income for the household.

Because the informal sector workers do not have a comprehensive social protection coverage, they often face heightened vulnerabilities due to factors such as

limited access to healthcare, financial insecurity and a lack of legal protections, further exacerbating existing gender inequalities.

The matching grant for Self-Employed Scheme (SPS) initiative from Budget 2024 provides a holistic social protection

coverage, especially for women who are

self-employed in 20 different sectors. They are eligible for various benefits such as medical benefits, temporary and permanent disablement resulting from employment-related injuries.

This guarantees a significant step towards empowering women with essential benefits and support to navigate the challenges of self-employment in informal sectors.

More than 161,000 of female self-employed have enrolled in the scheme with female predominantly working in food; healthcare treatment and rehabilitation; hawker; agriculture; and online freelancing sectors. With a robust safety net in place, women can contribute more effectively to their households and communities.

In the ongoing battle against gender disparities within the workforce,

Perkeso emerges as a beacon of change, spearheading multifaceted approaches to address systemic barriers and foster inclusivity.

With a focus on policy reforms, institutional support, and societal shifts in attitudes, Perkeso champions efforts to create a future where every woman can pursue her career aspirations and achieve economic security.

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