Looking for Malaysian gender champions

  • naturalLy
  • Saturday, 23 Feb 2019

FOR her book The War on Women, Sue Lloyd-Roberts interviewed BBC journalist Shaimaa Khalil, who’s an Egyptian.

Says Khalil, “There is this notion that women’s rights are a separate and not important notion of human rights (in Egypt) as a whole. It is a luxury you can deal with after you’ve sorted out other important issues like the economy and security, without considering that women’s rights are part of sorting out security and economy.”

I could not agree more. For many years now, I have observed how gender is boxed into a “women’s-only” concern and one that is often sidelined.

How many forums and panels, especially around International Women’s Day (IWD), which is coming up on March 8, have many of you attended where 90% of the attendees and panellists are women who are already converted to the gender cause?

Compare that to the number of all-male panels commenting on diverse topics, and you’ll get my point.

When women’s groups pushed for 30% representation of women in the Cabinet after May 9, 2018, the pushback highlighted the need to elect ministers and deputy ministers based on meritocracy and political experience, not on gender quota. This despite the fact that none of the women MPs has lied or misled about their education experience or has less political experience than the men elected.

Malaysian women were told to be content with the rise to 14% representation of women in Parliament from 11% previously, and to applaud the Pakatan Harapan government because we have more women holding ministerial positions than ever before.

Well, the Deputy Prime Minister is a woman, so why do women’s groups still want the 30% quota?

A prominent Malaysian woman recently told me that the issue with women in corporate leadership positions are not only caused by all-male boards of directors who elect those in their image to “join the club”, but also by the very fact that so few women become chief executive officers (CEOs).

Women are only chosen for such positions to “clean up the mess”, a job many men of similar stature have the luxury to reject. See the parallel with a country that just saw a change in government?

She further commented that when a woman is appointed as CEO, she feels obliged to do her very best, often putting pressure on her mental health and sacrificing her family and even other relationships. In short, women in leadership positions are held to different standards than men.

We see this repeatedly. Women are expected to be “less emotional” when we lead, even receiving comments on the pitch of our voice when we speak in public, never mind the comments on the way we dress or fashion our hair and tudung.

The image that provides the best optics in politics is to look meek and pretty, which gets the votes.

A woman can speak up, but not too loudly. A woman can lead a political party or a company, but only if she satisfies the image of how a woman is perceived by men. A woman can gain education to the highest degree but must always put family before career and fit within the norms of traditional, conservative gender roles.

God forbid if a woman were to use the elevator at an MRT station – even with a CCTV (although unmonitored) in place. When she enters alone a public space, it is still her responsibility to ensure her safety. Can’t you see the problem here?

The campaign theme for IWD 2019 is #BalanceforBetter. How can we Malaysians even work towards a balance when women ourselves are still subjected to patriarchal views and expectations?

More so, are we expecting women to shoulder the responsibility of economic growth (by joining the labour force and increasing the labour force participation rate), security (by ensuring that we never walk alone in public spaces, take martial arts classes, and the like), and education (by becoming mothers and shouldering parental responsibility)?

Khazanah Research Institute has estimated that raising women’s employment levels by 30% would raise Malaysia’s GDP by around 7% to 12%. Yet, the same report revealed that 58% (2.6 million) of women do not join the labour force due to family responsibilities. By contrast, only 3.2% of men (69,800) do the same.

Further, tertiary-educated women not only find it hardest to get employed relative to men, they are also paid 23.2% (RM1,498) lower than their male counterparts. Of total employed women, only 3.1% are managers (with lower compensation than men in the same category, recording a wage gap of 19.8%).

Overall, women’s representation at higher-level positions have shrunk within the past five years.

Yes, we have more women ministers and deputy ministers with portfolios that expand beyond gender, but should we be mollified with this?

I say there is much work to be done. It can begin by championing a balance on the responsibility we place on men – for men to step up as fathers, as allies and as men.

Only then would we see Malaysia exemplifying #BalanceforBetter.

Lyana Khairuddin is a virologist turned policy nerd living in Kuala Lumpur. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

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Opinion , Lyana Khairuddin , naturalLy


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