Both external and internal barriers must be addressed, says Noor Asmaliza Romlee.
Malaysia has done well in terms of achieving gender parity in education, with 63% of public university students being women. But a significant number of them tend to drop out of the workforce due to personal or family commitments.
The female labour force participation rate in 2017 stood at 54.7%, compared with the male rate of 80.1%. Countries like South Korea and Japan have a “double peak pattern”, where women who had earlier left the workforce rejoin when they are able to. Malaysia, in contrast, has a “single peak pattern”, where women in their late 20s and 30s do not return to work, to focus on their families (TalentCorp, 2017).
According to the 2018 Malaysian Labour Force Survey, 60.2% of women who do not participate in the labour force cited housework, including child and elderly care, as their main reason. Housework, which includes family responsibilities, is also a common factor raised by working women, impeding them from taking on bigger responsibilities or leadership roles in their jobs.
Many factors contribute to the lower number of women participants in the workforce compare to men. The external barriers that are frequently mentioned are lack of daycare facilities for their children, no option for flexible working hours, absence of support or training for them to return to the workforce after a career break and lack of policies on gender diversity at the workplace.
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Internal barriers among women also need to be addressed. Here are five reflections on how we can break such barriers:
Encourage balanced relationships, 50/50 partnership in households
Husbands and wives need to equally share housework and childcare when both work full-time. We need to stop laughing or being cynical if the father does a better job at “domestic services” than the mother.
To the women, do not worry too much about letting your partners help when it comes to things you are great at.
To the men, be a real partner by supporting your spouse’s career, and spend more time helping with the children and at home.
Representation of gender diversity in mass media
Local movies and TV shows need to showcase modern male role models who proactively share family responsibilities and modern female role models who show that it is possible to have both a family and a career. (This, of course, excludes movies like Lady Boss that encourage the stereotype of the “horrible female boss”.)
Address misconception that mums are more committed to family than work
This myth penalises women because employers assume that they will not live up to professional expectations. We know that women’s career aspirations do not differ from men’s and their ambition grows along with their work experience. The reverse is true for men, who are expected to put their jobs first. And, we have to stop judging men primarily on their professional success.
Raise awareness of gender equality at home, workplace
In many homes during festive gatherings, the kitchen shows gender segregation: women are expected to do most of the cleaning and cooking there, while men spend time with guests in the living room.
Young mothers can start educating their children from a young age on sharing housekeeping tasks.
At work, it is important to reach out to a colleague crying over how she is being treated or take action when we see injustice being done on the basis of gender.
From the perspectives of Islamic law
It could be worthwhile to raise awareness about the often-overlooked possibility for women – especially those who had already started working before they got married – to add a “ta’liq” when the marriage is registered, to the effect that the husband cannot prevent the wife from working.
Also, it is about time that state religious authorities consider the inclusion of a chapter on the equal distribution of household responsibilities between husbands and wives in the compulsory pre-marriage course.
Noor Asmaliza Romlee is a trained science communicator from the National University of Singapore and the Australian National University. She has worked in a national think tank in science, technology and innovation as well as in the NGO and private sectors.