ALBERT Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Malaysia’s commitment and dedication to the advancement of women is evident in many of its programmes and policies over the last three decades. However, doing such programmes without examining the root cause preventing more women from rising up the ranks, in our opinion, is insanity.
In line with International Parity at Work Day today, we should seriously consider whether the existing women empowerment programmes are the most effective ways to reach gender parity at the workplace.
Progress, while we do have it, is unbearably slow. Where some women do manage to break the glass ceiling, it is only a temporary effect.
Women still currently account for only 17.9% of the boards of directors in the top 100 public-listed companies on Bursa Malaysia as of June 30 last year. At 54.3% of the total 9.9 million potential women labour force, Malaysia has the lowest female economic participation among all the South-East Asian countries.
This contributes directly to Malaysia’s ranking at 104 out of 144 countries on the Global Gender Gap report 2017. The other factor that keeps Malaysia at such dismal ranking is low political empowerment.
So what is holding women back from contributing their full selves?
A study by the World Bank on Malaysian women’s participation in the workforce found a pattern that suggested women here aged 26 and older are more sensitive to life-cycle transitions compared to other countries in the world. Married women, regardless of whether they live in urban or rural areas, participate the least in the workforce.
Malaysian women also retire earlier than their male counterparts, which the World Bank attributes to them being caught in a “double burden” syndrome of managing both the home and caring for their children or the elderly, even if they hold full-time jobs outside the home.
Another contributing factor is that women who leave the workforce after the age of 26 will never return.
Sadly, not only is 26 the prime age to have children, it is also the prime age to build a career. With a great number of women exiting the workplace to focus on family, the pool of women talent to fill up top management jobs also shrinks.
It is also pertinent to take into account that mothers, by default, are the primary (and sometimes only) caregiver, as deeply entrenched in our labour laws.
Currently, women are entitled to 60 days’ maternity leave under the law, but there is no such provision for paternity leave.
While maternity leave is crucial to allow for recuperation from childbirth, it also serves as time to bond with a newborn. The omission of a right for men to take paternity leave suggests that their expected role in childcare is non-existent.
It is not surprising then that the burden of raising children more often than not falls squarely on the shoulders of women, limiting their ability to be present at work.
Although certain private companies offer three to five days’ paternity leave at their discretion, and government offices mostly offer seven to 14 days, this is still insufficient for fathers to truly be a partner to their wives in raising their children. Generous employers, such as CIMB and IKEA, offer one
month’s paternity leave.
On the surface, the recommendation by the Government to increase maternity leave to 90 days during the tabling of the 2018 Budget sounded good.
Nevertheless, the fact is that offering more maternity leave while offering zero paternity leave does not dispel the discrimination that is already faced by women in the labour market.
A 2016 Workplace Discrimination Survey by Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) revealed that more than 40% of the women polled had experienced job discrimination due to their pregnancy, such as making their positions redundant, denying them promotions, placing them on prolonged probation, demoting them, or firing them.
It is not a far stretch to see how women in Malaysia, married or single, could be discriminated against in hiring decisions, especially in a culture that highly regards marriage and having children in determining the worth of a woman.
Society for Equality, Respect And Trust for All (Serata) believes that in order to achieve gender parity at work, we must first tackle the existing inequality in the labour law and workplace policies by including paternity leave. Serata therefore supports the recommendation already forwarded by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) to extend paternity leave to one month.
Studies conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have shown that gender inequality in unpaid care work is the missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in labour outcomes, such as labour force participation, wages and job quality. Paternity leave will reduce gender inequality in the home by encouraging men to be more active in childcare, as a study of four OECD countries show.
In the four countries – the United States, Australia, Britain and Denmark – fathers who had taken paternity leave were more likely to feed, dress, bathe and play with their child long after the period of leave had ended.
Most importantly, the World Economic Forum has found that countries that offer paternity leave are the most successful in closing the wage gap between men and women.
There is a popular saying that “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world”, which originates from a poem by William Ross Wallace that praises motherhood as the pre-eminent force for change in the world. The poem was first published in 1865, more than 100 years ago.
Isn’t it time to change the mindset that the hand that rocks the cradle belongs not only to women but also to men?
Co-founder of Society for Equality, Respect And Trust for All (Serata)