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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on April 1, 2019 - April 7, 2019

Heralded by the hashtag #balanceforbetter, this year’s International Women’s Day came with the call to create a gender-balanced working world. While balance is important for all workers throughout an organisation, it is particularly relevant to women who — much more so than their male colleagues — are often expected to strike a balance between career building and homemaking, between bringing home a pay cheque and bringing up the children, and even between ambition and compassion.

From a more practical perspective, gender balance means creating more equitable opportunities for women, particularly at the highest levels of an organisation. According to “The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in Asia-Pacific”, a report published by McKinsey’s business and research arm, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), women in the region continue to be concentrated in lower growth sectors and lower paying roles. The talent pipeline also narrows for women, with a drop-off of over 50% of representation from entry level to senior management.

Beyond the moral and ethical implications suggested by this imbalance, gender inequality puts corporations at a disadvantage. McKinsey research from our Women Matter series has shown that greater representation of women in senior corporate positions correlates to improved business performance. In essence, diversity leads to more dynamic discussions, a broader range of factors considered and healthy challenges to conventional thinking. The benefits apply to governments as well as private organisations. In short, gender equality at all levels is not just a moral and ethical imperative; it is also good for business and the economy.

Ultimately, measures that help promote gender balance — for instance, flexible hours and expanded parental leave — directly improve the work-life balance of all employees, female and male. These factors can be crucial as today’s top talent, often favoured with multiple opportunities, weigh work-life balance and other aspects of happiness more keenly than previous generations in choosing and staying with their employers.


Gender balance — a trisector effort

Much is at stake. MGI’s report has estimated that US$12 trillion can be added to global growth by advancing gender equality. According to the report, Malaysia has the potential to add US$50 billion a year to its gross domestic product by 2025, which would be an 8% increase over its business-as-usual trajectory.

Capturing these benefits requires not just a vision and a will but also proactive and focused measures. Governments, companies and society, which make up this trifecta, must work together to unlock this potential.

Malaysia has already taken steps to address sources of gender inequality. The United Nations has listed Malaysia as a leader in encouraging women to participate in science, and half of all researchers in Malaysia are women. In addition, in 2004, the government committed to filling at least 30% of key roles in the public sector with women, and in 2017, women comprised 36% of the public-sector workforce. Also, in 2015, the government mandated that women comprise at least 30% of the boards of large corporations by 2020, making it the only country in Asean with such a directive.

Despite these encouraging steps, women in Malaysia still face barriers. Persistent challenges facing women include the difficulties of juggling family responsibilities with paid work, traditional attitudes towards women, limited access to finances, inadequate parental leave policies and inadequate skills for the modern labour market.


Prioritising government action for gender equality

The first actor in the tripartite effort to encourage gender balance is the government, which must build on ongoing efforts to bring more women into the workforce and particularly into senior positions. In Malaysia, women account for 38% of the workforce, one percentage point higher than the 37% average in Asia-Pacific. They also contribute about 32% to Malaysia’s GDP, compared with 36% in Asia-Pacific. Along with building a more equitable workforce, bringing participation in the workforce by women closer to parity would have economic benefits.

To advance gender equality in Malaysia, measures should be taken that address gender stereotyping, sexual harassment, lack of women in leadership roles, support for pregnant women and balancing work and caregiving responsibilities, among other pressing issues. The Gender Equality Act was introduced in 2006 to protect women from discrimination through all stages of life and efforts are needed to finalise and implement its provisions.


The business case for gender equality

There is also a big role businesses can play to improve gender parity — pivotal of which is narrowing gaps in pay for equal work. A gender pay gap is a contributing factor to lower representation of women along the pipeline and this remains a problem in Malaysia, where women degree holders on average get only 76% of what men get paid, according to numbers released by the Department of Statistics in 2017.

Thankfully, both the government and private corporations within the country are stepping up efforts to drive change. For example, 30% Club Malaysia, a business group that campaigns for more female directors on company boards, has helped advance women in directorships and leadership positions and is on course to achieve 30% women on corporate boards by 2020. Their numbers have risen to 19.1% in 2017, up from 16.6% at end-2016. The club convenes women through roundtable sessions where several issues that women are facing are raised, including sourcing for board-ready women directors.

Separately, technology can also help Malaysia increase the participation of women in the workforce by providing entrepreneurial opportunities and the possibility of flexible working conditions. To capture such benefits, efforts are needed to build digital skills among women. Private organisations and foundations, such as eHomemakers, have played pivotal roles in building digital literacy. In Malaysia, eHomemakers provides computer and business training to low-income and unemployed women who want to develop home-based businesses.


Cultural change to break gender gridlock

Society generally is the last tripartite element. Deeply rooted attitudes play an integral part in limiting the potential of women, and an investment in public awareness to shift social norms and help ease the path for working women is called for.

A complex fabric of conventions, beliefs, values, attitudes and prejudices based on traditions and historical experience wind through many levels of any society. The orthodox society remains patriarchal and the affluent still transfer property along patriarchal lines. The movement to change these traditional mindsets may be slow, but it is essential for real and long-term change.

Education and awareness are crucial. Schools could consider ways to remove gender bias and work in tandem with companies, for instance, in sponsorship and mentoring programmes for women, to encourage women to participate more broadly in the economy. Such measures could encourage a change in attitude among policymakers, business leaders and society generally to smooth the path towards gender parity.

Gender equity in Malaysia cannot be achieved without conscious efforts, and the challenge is compounded by changes in demographics and increased automation, which put increased pressure on the workforce. But if the tripartite actors — government, companies and society — work together, progress can be made and everyone can reap the benefits of #balanceforbetter.

Nimal Manuel is the managing partner and Ee Huei Koh is a partner at McKinsey & Co Kuala Lumpur office

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