This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 30, 2019 - January 5, 2020
WOMEN made their mark this decade on all fronts, be it in politics, at the workplace or at home. Globally, there has been a growing push to upend traditional power structures and spark awareness of gender inequalities.
A study by McKinsey & Co shows that women generated 37% of global GDP in 2017, despite making up 50% of the working-age population. The study adds that by closing the gender gap, US$12 trillion (RM49.6 trillion) could be added to global GDP, and 240 million workers could be added to the world’s labour force, by 2025.
Where is Malaysia in terms of gender equality in the workplace?
The Department of Statistics’ report on Statistics on Women Empowerment in Selected Domains, Malaysia, 2019 shows that the estimated income earned for a female stood at RM35,508 versus RM38,088 for male. This means for every RM100 salary and wages received by men, women only received RM93.20.
Half of the Malaysian working-age population are women but they constitute only two-fifths of the labour force, according to Khazanah Research Institute in a 2018 study.
Interestingly, the country’s per capita income would grow by 26.2% if all barriers to women workers were removed, according to the World Bank’s report, Breaking Barriers: Toward Better Economic Opportunities for Women in Malaysia.
Datuk Shireen Ann Zaharah Muhiudeen, chairman of Bursa Malaysia Bhd, says Malaysian women are dynamic, have always ranked high in educational attainment and, to date, have already exceeded men in terms of numbers in tertiary education.
However, she points out that these achievements are not reflected in the workplace — for example, the percentage of women professionals and technical workers is 44.7%, 5.3% less than men.
“At Bursa Malaysia, we believe in gender equality and opportunities available for all, and we have many women in high-ranking positions. Currently, 51.4% of Bursa Malaysia’s top, senior and middle management are female,” Shireen tells The Edge.
She has observed many efforts in Malaysia to address gender equality and to bridge gender gaps, as seen in the appointment of many women in high-ranking positions in government-linked companies (GLCs) and as CEOs of public listed companies (PLCs).
“We are also seeing more women in the role of legislator, senior official, judge and manager but there is always room for more,” says Shireen.
“I believe we should all play a role in encouraging increased women participation and bridging the gender gap by providing opportunities, changing mindsets and encouraging a positive approach to positions of power.”
Last year, 33 companies in the Fortune 500 were led by women — “an all-time high”, though they made up only 6.6% of CEOs of companies on Fortune’s list, an extremely low percentage, Shireen points out.
“In Malaysia, the movement for more women on boards [of directors] started in 2011. I have always had an interest in seeing more women on boards, so this is an excellent initiative.
“I am pleased to note the upward trajectory of women representation on boards. As at 3Q2019, the percentage of women directors on the boards of all PLCs had risen to 16.6%, while in the top 100 PLCs, it had increased to 26.9%. On the Bursa Malaysia board, the percentage of women representation currently stands at 55.6% compared with 30% at end-2018,” Shireen says, adding that diversity in the boardroom is crucial for robust discussions and “the avoidance of groupthink”.
The push for more women representation in decision-making positions began in 2004, when the government committed to ensure that 30% of decision-making roles in the public sector would be held by women. This was achieved in 2010 and the private sector was challenged to do the same, starting with PLCs.
The Malaysian chapter of the 30% Club notes the “marked improvement” in 3Q2019, when women filled 16.6% of the total 6,544 board seats in PLCs, compared with 13.3% in 2017.
“If we narrowed the view to the top 100 PLCs on Bursa, the statistics would be even more encouraging. Out of 851 seats, 252 or 26.9% are filled by women directors — an increase from 19.2% in 2017. In absolute terms, Malaysia is only 25 women directors short of reaching 30% gender diversity for this top category of companies,” says the non-profit club.
It also views the appointment of deserving women in top government and business organisations and GLCs in the past year as an indication of the confidence the public and private sectors have in women leadership to contribute to good governance and economic prosperity at the highest level.
With the change in government, Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail became the country’s first female deputy prime minister. It is also worth noting that while women make up only 18% of the Cabinet, it has the highest number of female ministers to date.
“Equally heartening is the number of organisations that are implementing policies that will help keep women in the workforce and in the boardroom. For example, PwC Malaysia recently implemented longer paternity leave, while the Employees Provident Fund has for a time expressed its reluctance to vote for directors’ reappointment if the company has no women on its board,” adds the 30% Club.
The organisation started as a campaign in the UK in 2010 with the goal of achieving a minimum of 30% women on FTSE 100 boards.
The Malaysia chapter was launched on May 8, 2015, with the aim of bringing more women on to the boards of local companies. It should be noted that the 30% Club is not a call for a quota — instead, it supports sustainable business-led voluntary change to improve the gender imbalance on the boards of companies in the country.
Initiatives aimed at increasing women’s participation in the workforce were included in Budget 2020. These include a RM500 monthly incentive for two years for women aged 30 to 50 who return to work; a RM300 hiring incentive each month for two years for employers; extended income tax exemptions for women returning to work until 2023; and a proposed increase in maternity leave from 60 days to 90 days for the private sector.
Globally, a number of women’s issues have come under the spotlight this decade, including the #metoo movement that went viral in 2017 after women began using the hashtag to tweet about sexual abuse allegations against disgraced American film producer Harvey Weinstein. Me Too was first launched by activist Tarana Burke in the US more than a decade ago but has now reached nearly every part of the world, encouraging women who had previously endured abuse and harassment to raise their voice to demand for reform.
Indeed, women’s rights have undergone a fundamental shift in the past decade. The question now is, can this momentum be sustained and will there be buy-in from all stakeholders in the new decade?
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