Women’s council sees widening gender gap in economy, politics due to Covid-19

The National Council of Women’s Organisations Malaysia warns of a drop in women professionals due in part to the lack of childcare caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

PETALING JAYA: The umbrella body for women’s organisations in the country predicts that the gender gap, particularly in the areas of economic participation and political empowerment, will widen due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking at a United Nations virtual dialogue in conjunction with its 75th anniversary, National Council of Women’s Organisations Malaysia president Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin said that while the government had done a lot, advances in narrowing the gender gap were “very meagre”.

“We know from the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2020 that we rank 104th out of 153 countries. We are the second lowest (in the region) next to Myanmar and that is very bad.

“And we are not going to live to see the gender gap closing in the most glaring areas: economic participation and opportunities and political empowerment.”

She said gender equality was not only about justice and fairness as it was also critical for helping economies and societies thrive and prepare for the future.

She added that the present situation was made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic which had led to mass unemployment and loss of income besides causing social and psychological distress including domestic violence.

“Labour participation will contract in a prolonged crisis, and women will give up paid employment as they struggle to juggle work and unpaid care as childcare centres are closing,” she said, adding that social protection is an area that must be looked into.

However she noted a silver lining to the situation in the increased digital uptake for working, learning, conducting business and socialising.

She recommended that the government and UN work to bridge the digital divide and mobilise technology to help the economy rebound and promote gender equality by helping people shape a new socio-economic system and succeed in future jobs.

“Already, we are seeing severe underrepresentation in emerging and growing professions such as data analysis, product development data, artificial intelligence, engineering and cloud computing.

“This lack of gender diversity doesn’t just contribute to lower innovation levels as the professional divergence has a compounding impact on the nature and quality of women’s employment and prospects, and will entrench gender gaps in the future of work.”

She also spoke of a need to increase the presence of women and their visibility in these jobs.

On the supply side, she said, the government and private sector should intensify upskilling and reskilling efforts for women interested in expanding their skills in the Industrial Revolution 4.0.

In the longer term, Sharifah said cultural norms which shape expectations and preferences for certain jobs and skillsets should be addressed.

She said such norms contribute to situations in which women opt for more degrees in non-science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-related areas.

“Cultural norms can be eliminated on the demand side when businesses embrace the diversity of recruiting and developing an inclusive working environment to retain women, including leadership roles, a gender reward system, equal pay and equal opportunities.

“When we do this on the business side, it will serve as incentives for women and girls to enrol in STEM.”

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