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Unleashing, empowering women for socio-economic superiority


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Things have changed for the better, but not for all women and not in all domains of gender equality, observes Anas Alam Faizli.

The high-income nation ambition or the numbers game has been our central economic discussion for the past seven years. Countless policies have been crafted for this end game but the solution remains elusive.

I have a revelation. The key and the secret to achieve this lies within humanity’s other half: women. Let me explain.

Women’s empowerment could potentially unlock an additional income per capita of approximately US$2,300 for the country, which would easily enable an overnight achievement of our target.

The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

However, the world is not ideal. It is true that all humans are equal, but some are more equal than others, and none more unequal than the status of women itself, and everyone must be held responsible. Women form one half of humanity, and are as equal to men in every aspect, except physical strength.

Unfortunately, in this modern and progressive era, gender discrimination and stereotyping is still alarmingly prevalent.

Women acing tertiary education

Society at large has always been quick to dismiss women’s achievements. This also include women’s remarkable achievements in tertiary education, where women have shattered a glass sphere that was once only available to men.

This is not surprising considering tertiary education has traditionally been dominated by men throughout the centuries. Some have even argued that this is due to the simple fact that there are more women nowadays compared to men.

Data, however, contradicts this. According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, as of 2016, Malaysia’s gender ratio indicates that there are 107 males to every 100 females. That brings the actual figure of 16.4m males and 15.3m females in Malaysia.

Over the past decade, there has been a big shift in the gender balance: women have begun to outnumber men in university enrolments. This global trend is seen not only in developed countries such as America and Europe, but it also prevails in Asian countries such as Brunei, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia, with Malaysia being an extreme case in the region.

In 2015, close to 55 per cent of higher education intake (public and private universities, community colleges, and polytechnics) were dominated by females at 280,296 versus males 230,858. Females showed a higher domination in public universities’ intake at 106,277 (63 per cent) versus males 61,850.

Nonetheless, their male counterparts have balanced out the numbers in private universities, where the ratio is close to 50:50. The same year also saw 169,198 females successfully graduating from higher education versus 120,596 males.

These numbers are showing that women are in the forefront in higher education. With over 50,000 more females than males who managed to graduate in 2015 alone, imagine the existing disparity formed over the past decade!

Unfortunately, significant gains by women in tertiary education have not translated into better labour market outcomes.

Aside from the teaching sector, women are not seen to be participating dominantly in the workforce nor as leaders in the corporate, legal, academic, economic or political scene in proportion to the educational gain demonstrate.

Labour force participatior rate

In 2015, women’s participation in the labour force participation rate was at a modest 54.1 per cent (out of a total 9.9m potential women in the labour force), a far cry from the men’s rate of 80.6 per cent This number has improved only slightly from 47.2 per cent in 2000.

Our neighbours are faring better: the omen’s labour force participation rate for Myanmar is 75.2 per cent, Cambodia 78.8 per cent, Lao 76.3 per cent, Vietnam 73 per cent and Thailand  75.2 per cent.

We are left questioning, where have the women gone to and where are they now in our society?

The next set of questions would be, what are the socio-economic benefits in empowering women and what are the challenges and how should we address them?

A study by the World Bank on Malaysian women’s participation in the workforce found a pattern that suggested Malaysian women older than 26 are more sensitive to life-cycle transitions than their counterparts in other countries. Married women in both urban and rural areas have the lowest participation rate. Additionally, Malaysian women also retire earlier than their male counterparts.

The World Bank attributes this factor to women being caught in a “double burden” syndrome of managing both the home and caring for their children or the elderly. Another contributing factor to the labour force participation rate gap is that women that leave the workforce after 26 will never return.

This is called a “single-peaked” profile – as opposed to “double-peaked” profiles in other countries in Asia such as Japan and Korea, where is a recovery in labour force participation after women hit 35.

These conditions leading to a woman’s decision to remain or withdraw from the labour force must be assessed within the context of Malaysian cultural and social values to determine the appropriate policy environment and incentives to retain a larger number of women in the labour force after marriage.

Aside from the formal sector, women are seen to be prospering in the informal sector where they are offered more flexibility in working hours. One of the most popular routes taken by these women are by conducting businesses through social media platforms.

Women in politics, local, and state governments

Since our independence, Malaysian women have had the right to vote in elections and to hold public office. Today, women comprise one half of registered voters and are active in political life.

However, instead of being political leaders themselves, a majority of women have continued the trend of only engaging themselves primarily in raising financial support, turning out in full force during elections, carrying out routine tasks related to daily campaigning, and facilitating voter participation during the election process for their political parties.

The old-fashioned gender roles remain where women are adherent of male leaders and retain traditional positions in political parties.

The number of women gaining electoral office in the federal and state governments is also dismal. Gender inequality still persists in this sphere, as indicated by the extremely low percentage of women at all levels of political office.

Malaysia ranks number 156 out of 189 countries in the number of women representatives in the national parliament at a dismal 10.4 per cent or 23 seats of the total 222 parliamentary seats. The state assemblies also indicate a similar trend at a measly 10.8 per cent or 55 seats represented by women, of the total 505 state parliamentary seats.

Perhaps Malaysia should take a cue from our neighbours, Vietnam (24 per cent), Lao (25 per cent), Singapore (25 per cent), and the Phillipines (27 per cent) where women have higher levels of political participation.

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The same situation can be found in the executive arm of the Malaysian government. Since 1957, the number of women ministers has never exceeded three and that remains as of today: of the 35 cabinet members, one if a minister responsible for women and the other two are ministers in the Prime Minister’s Office.

This scenario is similar across the board for all state governments while Terengganu and Sarawak have never appointed a female ExCo member. The Pakatan Rakyat state government in Selangor made a breakthrough when they lined up four women of the total 10 ExCo positions in 2008. But Pakatan did not do the same for Perak when they were in power, failing to appoint any female ExCos despite having the second highest number of women to the state Assembly. Selangor reduced their women ExCo members to two in 2013.

Women are also observed to be given limited appointments as local authority council members: they are only appointed to 362 (14.1 per cent) of the total 2,567 positions.

Women leaders in civil service and corporations

As of 2015, there were 718,044 (57.1 per cent) women civil servants from a total of 1,257,166 civil servants in professional and support services (Grades 1-54). But in the top management tiers (Grade Jusa C and above), only 1,498 (37.1 per cent) women made it from a total of 4,041civil servants.

Subsequently only five (11.4 per cent) were appointed as directors of statutory bodies, 13 (31.7 per cent) as deputy secretaries general and seven (29.2 per cent) as secretaries general.

While in corporations, according to Bursa Malaysia in 2015, women held 26.3 per cent of top management positions across listed corporations. However, women only form 15 per cent of the total members of boards of directors in Ministry of Finance (Incorporated) companies.

Women have previously held high positions such as the Bank Negara governor, chairman of the Securities Commission, managing directors of banks, Bar Council chairman, chief executive officers of Air Asia X and SME Corp. Women remain an exception in these positions and not the norm.

Women as educators and in the legal system

There are 421,828 teachers in Malaysia and close to 72 per cent of them are women. However, only 3,580 (37.2 per cent) women made it as the primary school head or secondary school principal or the residential school principal out of a total of 9,615 positions. There is a massive gap here considering the number of women teachers that made it into decision-making positions.

The same disparity persists in universities, while there are 11,931 (56.6 per cent) women lecturers of a total 21,077, and only 13 (19.12 per cent) of 68 are appointed as deputy vice chancellors and four (20 per cent) of 20 are appointed as vice chancellors.

Women in the legal system are growing in numbers, which hopefully will be the key to inducing reforms that will improve the legal status of women. Women represent three (27 per cent) out of the 11 judges in the Federal Court, 12 (41.4 per cent) judges from a total of 29 judges in the Court of Appeal and 29 (50 per cent) of the 58 judges in the High Courts. The Sharia courts are lagging behind where women represent only eight (10.8 per cent) out of 74 judges.

In the lawyering practice, women form 8,551 (51.7 per cent) of 16,537 lawyers. However, like teachers, there still persists a disparity in the gender ratio between junior and senior lawyers as opposed to female lawyers in partner positions and even in the executive committee of Bar Councils in the country. More women should be placed in decision-making positions.

Empowering women for socio-economic benefits

A study on gender equality by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that increasing the share of household income controlled by women changes spending in ways that benefit children and family as a whole.

The study also found that increasing women and girls’ education contributes to higher economic growth for about 50 per cent of OECD countries over the past 50 years.

Additionally, another study by Dr Emmanuela Gakidou from University of Washington found that for every one additional year of education for women of reproductive age, child mortality is decreased by 9.5 per cent (based on historical data from 219 countries from year 1970 to 2009).

McKinsey & Company (2014) deduced that women’s economic equality is good for businesses. Companies reap bountiful benefits in terms of organisational effectiveness by increasing leadership opportunities for women.

Companies with three or more women in senior management functions score higher in all the measured dimensions of organisational effectiveness. Women are able to perform better in this particular arena as they generally have higher aspirations and emotional intelligence.

If we are to be on par with the women labour participating rate in Singapore (63 per cent), an additional 1.4m more women in the workforce is needed and if we are to use Canada (74 per cent) as a model, an additional 2.3m women would be needed in the workforce. That’s only half from the total missing women in action of 4.5m.

The World Bank estimated that the 2.3m missing in action from the workforce can leapfrog our income per capita by 23 per cent – from entrepreneurial activities (6 per cent) and “absent” women workforce (17 per cent) – translated to about US$2,300 per capita, which would enable an overnight achievement of high-income status for Malaysia.

Working mothers produce better sons and daughters

A comprehensive study of 50,000 adults from 25 nations by the Harvard Business School inferred an interesting result contrary to popular and admittedly traditional beliefs.

The study found that growing up with a working mother improves future career prospects for daughters and sons and is unlikely to harm children socially and economically when they become adults.

Women growing up with working mothers show better performance in the workplace. They are more likely to hold supervisory responsibility at those jobs and earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home full-time. The study however found no effect to their sons’ performance at work as men are naturally expected to work.

However, sons of working mothers do better in domestic duties and spend more time caring for family members. The study also found that sons who have working mothers spend nearly twice as many hours on family and child care as those hailing from more traditional households – a weekly average of 16 hours compared to 8.5 hours.

Barriers and challenges in the workforce

Where do we rank in the gender inequality charts? Malaysia ranks 111 out of 145 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. In contrast, based on the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index (GII), Malaysia did better; coming in at 62 out of 188 countries. Regardless, there is still much to be improved.

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A study by the United Nations found that women bear disproportionate responsibilities for unpaid care work. Women devote one to three hours more a day to housework than men; two to 10 times the amount of time a day to care (for children, elderly, and the sick), and one to four hours less a day for paid labour.

This is similar to Malaysia. These differences, deeply rooted in gender roles, reduced women’s leisure, welfare and wellbeing. As a result of these different domestic responsibilities, men and women have different patterns of time usage, periods of leisure and high activity.

These patterns have implications for women’s ability to invest in education and their ability to take up economic opportunities and entrepreneurship and to participate more broadly in current economic, political, public and social life.

In Malaysia, 67 per cent of women cite care and other familial and personal responsibilities as the reason for not being in the labour force, versus only 2 per cent of men. This is a wide difference from the EU’s 25 per cent. This directly and negatively impacts women’s participation in the labour force in Malaysia.

Women are also more vulnerable to economic shocks considering a majority of women are employed in low and semi-skilled positions. A salary disparity between men and women is still prevalent in Malaysia: women earn less than men in all occupational sectors, notably in elementary occupations in the range of between 10 and 40 per cent compared to men (Salaries & Wages Survey, 2014).

Additionally, a safer environment for women to commute to work is also a challenge considering  that crime, especially snatch thefts, is on the rise, with women being the primary target.

Discrimination against pregnant women

A Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)’s workplace discrimination Survey found that 40 per cent of women polled have experienced job discrimination due to their pregnancy. The survey revealed that the top five ways used by employers to discriminate against pregnant women are by making their positions redundant, denying them promotions, placing them on prolonged probation, demoting them, and terminating their jobs.

The survey also revealed that about 20 per cent of women have had their job applications rejected or job offers revoked after they disclose their pregnancy. Survey results also show that 30 per cent of women will delay their pregnancy plans because they fear losing their job or promotion.

Only about one in eight women who have lost their jobs or have been looked over for promotions due to pregnancy have actually lodged formal complaints. The majority of women do not know their rights or fear backlash and harassment for speaking up. Additionally, both the Employment Act 1955 and the Industrial Relations Act 1967 provide very minimal relief, if any at all.

Existing legal protections are insufficient and there are no specific laws in Malaysia that deal with pregnancy-related discrimination.

Sexual harassment against women

Sex-based discrimination takes on many forms at the workplace and in public. Sexual harassment may include verbal, non-verbal/gestural, visual, psychological and physical harassment. As with pregnancy discrimination, there is no specific law in Malaysia that deals with sexual harassment.

Currently, women can lodge a complaint under the Employment (Amendment) Act 2012 which has expanded the definition of sexual harassment and put into place legal ramifications for sexual harassment at the workplace. However, the law only applies for harassment at the workplace and is at most, incomprehensive and limited.

The act only covers people in employment and excludes women working in the informal sector. Provisions in the act also exclude many sections of the female community, such as members of Parliament who are sexually harassed by fellow male MPs, domestic workers by employers, students by teachers, nurses by patients, patients by doctors, and passengers by bus drivers.

The Federal Court in June 2016 made a landmark ruling paving the way for sexual harassment suits to be heard in civil courts beyond the current narrow limits dictated by the Employment Act, and the judges too agreed that the Employment Act is insufficient.

Barriers and challenges in politics

There are five major obstacles that stand in the way of women who wish to participate in politics – namely, social perception of women’s leadership abilities, role conflicts, religious and cultural constraints, structural constraints within political parties, and finally, limited financial resources.

Structural constraints within political parties exist, where the existence of women are in subordinate status modes confined to the women’s wing within the parties, being only party auxiliaries. The real power remains within the firm grasp of men who hold the gate to party positions and electoral candidacies.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat is paving the way for change with its woman party president and one woman vice president, who is also in charge of its electoral candidacies.

For supreme council members, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Parti Maju Sabah are leading with 26.7 per cent and 23.1 per cent women representation while Bersatu, Umno, the MIC, the DAP are behind at 13 per cent, 11.7 per cent, 10.3 per cent, 10 per cent respectively, and both Pas and the MCA at 8.6 oer cent. Amanah and Upko are well behind at 6.9 per cent and 4.5 per cent.

Furthermore, in politics, women face the same problem in the workforce, carrying a “double burden” which remains an inhibiting factor to their full political participation. These challenges result in lower women representatives in both federal and state legislatures, providing a direct causal effect to the number of executives in the government.

So how do we move forward to face all the barriers and challenges in women’s empowerment?

Women’s institutions and decision-making

The Malaysian government in 1975 introduced the National Advisory Council on the Integration of Women in Development (NACIWID) as a machinery to mobilise women’s participation in development. It was tasked with advising the entire government on women’s issues.

In 2001 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was formed with Shahrizat Abdul Jalil acting as the Minister to solely focus on the development of women. Three years later the scope of the ministry was widened to include family development and social welfare, and its name was changed to the current Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.

The NACIWID has then been placed under this ministry and is called Majlis Wanita. Instead of advising the entire government, it now only advises this one ministry.

To begin addressing women’s challenges and spearheading a way forward, the toothless Majlis Wanita must be revamped as a national women’s commission given the prime authority and power to direct, oversee, and monitor national implementation of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

In accelerating women’s political leadership, an independent, non-partisan women’s political institute must be set up to nurture womens leadership abilities. More studies and institutes for women like Institut Kajian Wanita (Kanita) at USM and the Gender Studies Department at UM must be established and supported.

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More women should be placed in decision-making positions in all spheres of life; politics, civil service, corporations and the general public.

The current simplistic target of having at least 30 per cent women in decision-making positions in both the government and the private sector is beneficial. Unfortunately, we end up with an hourglass structure. Women’s participation is observed to be heavy in top management (within the 30 per cent target) and entry level positions with hollow participation in between. More measures are required to strengthen the occupational pipeline.

Unleashing women for a brighter future

While current initiatives to leverage and highlight women’s talent are laudable, other policy options must be explored, evaluated, and tailored to enable Malaysian women to fully contribute to Malaysia’s transformation towards a high-income, inclusive, and sustainable economy.

Initiatives must be taken to end all forms of discrimination against women, to eliminate all forms of violence against women, to ensure women’s full and effective participation in all political, corporate and public affairs, to undertake reforms to equal rights to economic resources, and most importantly, to recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work.

Women are leading both in class and extracurricular activities over their minority men cohort within the higher education environment, and it is pertinent for this to continue after leaving universities. A change in the stereotype of women as only homemakers and child bearers must take a paradigm shift.

The status quo has been broken. Women are fast becoming income-earners and providers equivalent to men but at the same time unpaid care work is not recognised. Women are tasked to work and at the same time no efforts are made to lessen their care burden. This is not healthy and is not sustainable.

In the long-term, prevailing social norms need to evolve for gender gaps to be bridged. A social re-engineering and going back to the drawing board is required to formulate the best solution for this new emerging social dynamic.

Gender-sensitive education must start from school, enforced by the legal system, engendering government institutions, and also the authorities; including the police force.

Legal support for women

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, is synonymous with an international bill of rights for women. It has a prominent preamble and 30 articles, defining what constitutes discrimination against women and measures to end such discrimination.

As a ratifying member of Cedaw, Malaysia must integrate these articles into domestic legislation and enact a Gender Equality Act. A revisit on existing legislation must be conducted to amend legislation that is discriminatory against women.

Subsequently, every state must establish its own gender policy guided by pressing national concerns. This will ensure gender equality will be mainstreamed in all policies and programmes from federal to state governments.

Comprehensive laws must be in place to protect women from sexual harassment by enacting a Sexual Harassment Act. Gender discrimination must be halted at all costs by penalising government departments or companies found to condone such acts and their perpetrators.

We need to protect pregnant women by adopting a Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Both Acts will provide legal protection to women and ensure that they feel secure at their workplace and in society, as a whole.

Remember, anything that makes a woman feel inferior and takes away her self-respect is abuse.

Making work family friendly

The existing tax relief for enrolling children aged six years and below to registered nurseries and pre-schools is not enough. Free nurseries at all government agencies and linked companies are urgently required to assist in reducing the burden of childcare and to assist families in achieving work-life balance. This must be implemented in achieving a family-friendly workplace.

In 2015, there were 3,193 registered private childcare institutions, and on top of that there were 118 government offices and 24 private offices that provided childcare. This illustrates a huge demand of private childcare institutions that the government and private offices should be providing.

The government sector is slightly ahead compared to the corporate sector. Both are lacking in initiative and are largely failing to provide working mothers with better access to childcare, flexible working hours and longer maternity and paternity leave.

Childcare is a shared responsibility – which means that the attitude and treatment towards fathers will also need to change.

More measures must be undertaken to ensure women have more social protection in the informal sector. This would drastically reduce the number of women leaving the workforce. Support must also be given to inculcate more women entrepreneurs.

To address the different needs between women and men, these issues have to be reflected in public transport policy, healthcare delivery, women in politics, and strengthening corporations in promoting gender diversity.

Stakeholders’ responsibility

All of the above calls for every stakeholder to relentlessly push for changes with full support from the government, including the agencies, and the private sector. Third party players from civil society must be supported as they will be able to dive deep at the grassroots level, increasing the awareness of Malaysians at large, and they will be supplementing both the government and the private sectors.

A prime example would be the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), formed in 1985, a coalition of 12 non-governmental organisations that work towards gender equality including the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL), Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), All Women’s Action Society (Awam), Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) and Tenaganita.

JAG must be credited for spearheading multiple campaigns and legal reform efforts, leading to the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act 1994 and the inclusion of “gender” under Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution in 2001.

Emerging NGOs such as Lean In Malaysia, Women: girls, The G-Blog, and also a social media initiative like the Leading Ladies of Malaysia and others must also be supported and sustained.

There exists a huge socio-economic benefit of tapping into and unlocking women’s potential that this country direly needs.

This article on its own, is not able to capture all the challenges and recommend enough proposals for a comprehensive and holistic solution to empower women forward.

However, it is humbly hoped that this article will trigger more public awareness on the challenges, the socio-economic benefits, and the proposals for empowering women, subsequently initiating more discourses to achieving the ultimate solution.

Things have changed for the better, but not for all women and not in all domains of gender equality. Women of Malaysia, your country needs you! As such, UNITE!

Anas Alam Faizli holds a doctorate in Business Administration. He is a construction and an oil and gas professional, a concerned Malaysian and is the author of Rich Malaysia, Poor Malaysians and tweets at @aafaizli‎

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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