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Women face glass ceilings at every level

September 29, 2016

We tend to be myopic when it comes to analysing women's potential, seeing what's happening at the top, but not at the very root of the problem.



By Sabrina Aripen

About three years ago, when I was still working for a women’s rights organisation, three women walked into our office to promote some accommodation packages at a luxurious 5-star hotel.

After some back and forth banter, my boss asked about their family life (this was after all an NGO looking out for the welfare of women and children).

“Do you have children?” my boss asked.

“Oh yes”, one of the ladies responded. “He’s only 2 years old”.

“Ahh… who takes care of him when you are at work?”

“My parents. They live in Kota Marudu.”

Kota Marudu is two and a half hours drive from Kota Kinabalu, too far for a daily commute. Slightly confused, we asked her to elaborate.

“I don’t have time to take care of him. This work takes up most of my day and sometimes I have to work late nights. I usually go back once in awhile when I have days off to see my child”, she said.

“Don’t you miss your child?”

“Yes,” she said, looking sad. Both my husband and myself work to make ends meet. We cannot afford childcare even with both our salaries”.

Childcare in Kota Kinabalu can cost anything upwards of RM300 per month (for half day) or RM500 (for full day).

The minimum wage here is RM920 a month, even though a sales promoter can possibly expect to be paid a RM1,500 basic salary before calculation of sales commission.

Hence, childcare could take up at least one-third of her salary for her to fully concentrate on work and this doesn’t even take into account rental, transportation and food.

Imagine, if that working woman was a single mother as well.

That was a grim insight to the dilemma of choosing work over caring for their children that some women may have to endure here in Sabah, especially if they earn a low salary. Sadly, women who earn higher salaries are not spared either from this heartache.

There are mothers who dread returning to the workforce, having to hand over their baby to a stranger early in the morning to travel through the morning traffic jams to get to work only to come back later in the day, braving more traffic jams to get back to their child.

What is left to share with their precious child is only the few hours of the evening before bedtime and then before you know it, it is morning and the mad rush for work starts again. I know, because I am one of those mums.

Due to the rising cost of living, most families cannot survive on having only one breadwinner in the family, which by social expectations, usually falls on the men.

Women, on the other hand, are often questioned of their choices when choosing to be a SAHM (Stay At Home Mum) or a FTWM (Full Time Working Mum) or vice-versa, or even simply for choosing not to have children.

I attended a forum last week titled “Glass Ceiling, Glass Walls, Fact or Fiction?” organised by MPWS (Sabah Women’s Advisory Council) together with JHEWA (the Women’s Affairs Department).

It struck me that the glass ceilings they spoke about were mostly related to women who want to break through to gain the top leadership positions, which in itself is already a privileged position to be in.

There was also a lot of emphasis on how women should be more assertive and how to raise girls. While I agree wholeheartedly that women need to step up to challenge gender stereotypes in order to get more women in leadership, I believe the issue goes deeper than that.

It is not about getting workplaces to treat female employees the same as male employees. It is about understanding the different needs of female employees in order to thrive in the workplace, so that there is a bigger pool of potential women candidates to groom for top leadership positions.

In March this year, Grant Thornton released the results of their survey of 5,520 chief executive officers, managing directors, chairmen or other senior executives from all industry sectors that was conducted between July and December 2015.

It was found that 31 per cent of companies in Malaysia do not have women in senior management roles,and that women make up only 26 per cent of all senior management positions despite the calls from Putrajaya to have women making up 30 per cent of the boards of all public companies.

This is a vast difference to tertiary education, where women constitute nearly 66 per cent of university enrolment in Malaysia, according to the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (Arrow).

So where is the gap, and how do we address this?

While there are many reasons to believe that a woman just simply needs to be more assertive and hardworking to be taken seriously as a leader, here are a few other ways that we should consider in bridging the gender gap in the workplace and beyond.

1. End discriminatory employment practices

According to a statement made by Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) in early August 2016, based on their Discrimination Survey that polled a total of 222 women from across Malaysia, discrimination against pregnant women remains prevalent in the Malaysian workplace with more than 40 per cent of women polled having experienced job discrimination due to their pregnancy.

The survey revealed the top five ways employers discriminated pregnant women, which include making their positions redundant, denying them promotions, placing them on prolonged probation, demoting them, and terminating their jobs. Survey results also show that 30 per cent of women will delay their pregnancy plans because they fear losing their job or promotion.

This is in direct contravention to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which Malaysia has ratified in 1995.

This international law was used in the decision in the case of “Noorfadilla binti Ahmad Saikin v Chayed bin Basirun and Ors [2012] 1 CLJ 769” which found that the subsequent revocation of the plaintiff’s post as a GSTT (untrained teacher) upon revelation about her pregnancy was a form of discrimination.

The Court held it “…is a form of gender discrimination because [it is a] basic biological fact that only women have the capacity to become pregnant…”.

Sabah’s Labour ordinance, like the Employment Act 1955, does not specifically prohibit discrimination against women in the workplace. For a woman to fully contribute to her career and reach her leadership potential, there should be no obstruction to her progression such as gender discrimination.

2. Provide better facilities and policies for working mothers

Malaysia is still largely a traditionalist society where women are expected to be above all a homemaker, the main caregiver of their children. As such, women are often pressured to stay home rather than working away from home to take care of their little ones, sacrificing what should be their prime to build a solid career.

By the time they return to work, their peers (usually men) would have already climbed to the top.

By ensuring that offices are equipped to be “working mother-friendly” with facilities such as workplace childcare and nursing rooms, and policies such as flexible work schedules with work from home options, this takes away a big chunk of worry women have with regards to their little ones and allows them to focus and contribute their best at work.

While the government has acknowledged the need to build more childcare centres in the workplace in Sabah in the 11th Malaysia Plan (RMK-11), there hasn’t been much progress from the private sector.

3. Acknowledge that there are different glass ceilings

There are many types of glass ceilings. And they are not always fixed. The reason I point this out is that we tend to be myopic when it comes to analysing women’s potential. We see only what’s happening at the top, but not at the very root of the problem.

There are glass ceilings that a women needs to break through to attain the top management post for an organisation. She may have a family, a spouse, networks and friends who are all behind her in support.

But for a woman who grew up in a strict, traditional family that believes a woman’s place is in the home, then her glass ceiling is breaking free of traditional roles.

For a woman who wasn’t given the privilege to further her studies, breaking the glass ceiling means simply securing a good job

As such, it is the employer’s responsibility to understand the different needs of women in order to thrive and take on management roles.

Gender stereotypes

I love that there are opportunities like these to speak up, however, there never seems to be enough time to delve in deeper the issues that are stopping women from taking charge. I feel like there is so much we can do, and it starts right at the root of the problem.

First and foremost, we need to address the gender stereotypes that dictate that the responsibilities for the home and children rests with the women. It starts with not only raising our girls, but with raising our sons to see girls and women as people.

And secondly, we need to be supportive of women who wish to rise to the top, even if it seems as insignificant as helping that girl fresh from her diploma course secure her first good job. It all starts from somewhere.

I really hope that we can see the birth of more workplace childcare and other policies as companies acknowledge the potential contribution of women who are fully engaged to their jobs and not discriminated against.

Sabrina Aripen is co-founder of Society for Equality, Respect and Trust for All (Serata) in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

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