Women in the workforce

LAST week, I had the privilege of presenting at the Asia Liberty Forum 2014 in New Delhi, India, on the issue of women and liberty in Malaysia. It was somewhat disconcerting, as I do not typically see the world through a gender lens. In the past, I have felt indignant at being invited to speak just to fulfil a female quota, as if the invitation would not have come about otherwise and therefore had little to do with my knowledge of the subject at hand.

Nevertheless, preparing the speech has forced me to look squarely at the issues that women do honestly face in the workforce today.

Women make up almost half the Malaysian population, but our labour force participation rate is relatively low at 46%, one of the lowest amongst the Asean countries, below Singapore (60%), Thailand (70%) and even Indonesia (52%).

This is surprising, given the fact that we have a very highly-educated female population. National data shows that women tend to be more highly qualified and go further in our studies (68.9% of females have a tertiary qualification as opposed to 66.8% of males as at 2010), and out-perform our male counterparts in international Pisa scores (which measure educational skills in schools).

So why is this not matched by labour participation statistics? Surely the country would benefit from half of the population's talented and highly-educated human resource in its various sectors, which would in turn contribute to economic growth and development.

There are several conceivable reasons for this. First, the labour force participation hits its peak for women in the age group of between 25 and 29, after which there is a dramatic fall. This means that the majority of women will work upon graduation, but leave as they start families and then very rarely return to the workforce. This can be compared against Japan and South Korea, in which women who stop working tend to re-enter the workforce in their 40s.

This could also account for the fact that women occupy very few managerial positions. Malaysia scores 30 in the managerial gap index (100 reflects no gap between men and women), lower than Thailand and the Philippines. Women make up 50% of entry level professionals, but form only 5 to 6% of CEOs and board members in the country. Since women tend to leave the workforce in their 30s, this would not have allowed them sufficient time to climb the ladder, corporate or otherwise, to assume more senior positions in their organisations.

Of course, the challenge in many Asian countries – and Malaysia is no exception – is that there are deeply embedded socio-cultural perceptions of women, which impact upon their presence in the workforce. In a World Bank study in 2012, 60% of males and 39% of females agreed that men should have priority for jobs, a much higher statistic than even Southeast Asian counterparts like Vietnam and Thailand.

Such perceptions are prevalent even – and perhaps especially more so – in politics. From the 13th general election, women formed 10% of all candidates, 10% of elected parliamentarians and 11% of elected state assemblymen. This is slightly on the low side, with Indonesia and Cambodia having a 18% and 21.1% representation of women in Parliament respectively. When women politicians were interviewed by academic Dr Cecilia Ng in 2010, they said they had to "fight harder to prove their significance and worth in a male-dominated governance structure". One recalls a particular parliamentarian making sexist, insensitive remarks to a female colleague on her monthly "bocor" when arguing about Parliament's ceiling leaks.

But examining how women's roles are perceived in Malaysia is perhaps to generalise what is in fact multi-layered, given the different ethnic backgrounds from which we come. Each community – whether racial or religious – would have its own view of how women are to behave, rightly or wrongly. And it is when these traditional values are confronted with the needs of modern society – urban living, dual income households – that inter-generational conflict may come into play.

In fact, one interesting phenomenon is how ethnic-based affirmative action policies since the 1970s that encouraged Malays to enter the civil service resulted in non-Malays seeking employment in the private sector. Non-Malay women working in the usually faster-paced, higher-expectations private sector would in turn change the roles they play in society; working longer hours directly impacts a woman's ability to balance between family and career.

Finally, one cannot exclude the rise in religious conservatism in Malaysia as being a significant determinant of women's presence in the workplace. In 2010, Noorfadilla Ahmad Saikin's initial job offer as a teacher was retracted when the education department found out she was pregnant. In 2012, a TV anchor was suspended for shaving her head in a cancer awareness campaign, after anonymous calls accused her of defying a religious fatwa prohibiting women from shaving their heads.

On a more personal level, an essay by former US state department head of policy planning, Ann-Marie Slaughter, struck a chord when she said that the culture of today's working environment makes it impossible for women to "have it all" – wanting to pursue a professional career all the way and simultaneously be a responsible mother and wife. In her own words, "Many women of my generation have found themselves, in the prime of their careers, saying no to opportunities they once would have jumped at", and more poignantly, "You should be able to have a family if you want one … and still have the career you desire. If more women could strike this balance, more women would reach leadership positions, and … they could make it easier for more women to stay in the workforce." (Slaughter, 2013).

Slaughter chose to leave her high-profile job in Obama's administration to take better care of her young children.

Back home, a survey done by ACCA of more than 800 professionals reflected similar sentiments: although 93% of women would consider returning to the workforce, 63% found it difficult to return, primarily due to family commitments, lack of social acceptance for women occupying leadership roles, a male-dominated work environment and inflexible work arrangements.

Changing the cultural view of women will not happen overnight, but employers adapting office policy to be more flexible and accommodating can surely take place. In fact, it is already happening, where companies offer work-from-home days and flexi-hours, on the condition that these should not compromise on productivity. Women entrepreneurs and those in the informal sector (doing online business, freelance consulting, or even street hawking) are ways in which more liberal values and attitudes toward women are by-passing conventional perceptions of women's roles.

As Malaysia gears up towards what it hopes to be a high-income nation, it is important to raise women's labour force participation rates, and then retain them. The government invests heavily into the education sector, but the phenomenon of women leaving the workforce forms another type of "brain drain" that is less frequently talked about. By doing this, we can tap into the human resources currently absent from the labour market (estimated at anywhere between 1 to 2 million people), and eventually optimise what is currently latent talent. Some very deeply ingrained cultural and pseudo-religious views of women will also need some serious altering to get where we want to.

Tricia Yeoh is the chief operating officer of a local, independent think-tank. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com