Policy must move beyond tokenism, empower women 

Conversations about women’s empowerment inevitably take centre stage on International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March.  Yet, as public figures, multinational corporations and policymakers alike rush to extend words and repeat platitudes in commemoration of IWD, one question looms large: are these well-crafted corporate messages just exercises in self-promotion, tokenism and corporatisation?

For Malaysia, which trailed far behind its regional peers in the 2022 Global Gender Gap Index, ranking 103 out of 140 countries, there is an urgent need to move beyond symbolic acts of celebration towards meaningful, impactful and sustainable support for women.

While there have indeed been recent wins for women’s empowerment, they have been hard won and long delayed. In February, the cabinet agreed to amend the constitution to allow automatic citizenship for children of Malaysian mothers born abroad, following prolonged battles in court.

Amendments to the Employment Act 1955 also kicked in this year, bringing into effect family friendly policies like longer maternity and paternity leave alongside restrictions on the termination of pregnant women. Sexual harassment was also finally recognised as a crime with the passing of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act 2022. Allocations for women in Budget 2023 have also been relatively comprehensive, ranging from childcare assistance to grants that encourage their return to work.

But as always, more can be done. Progress over the last few decades mean that Malaysian women now outnumber men at all levels of education and demonstrate higher educational attainment but this has yet to translate into higher labour force participation rates or equal pay.

Women have also reported dropping out of the workforce because of housework and family obligations, long before the pandemic disproportionately devastated their labour market outcomes. Women’s political representation also leaves much to be desired.  Nearly half of the population are women but they make up only 14% of MPs.

It defies logic that the target of 30% of women in leadership positions in companies does not extend to decision-making at the federal level. Meanwhile, messaging by previous governments have at times served to entrench gender roles rather than subvert them.

This year’s IWD is an opportunity for the new government to engage in more substantial policy commitments to further equity and introduce nuance into policymaking. The most crucial step is implementing a strategy called gender mainstreaming, which integrates a gendered perspective into all levels of policies, projects and programmes.

Gender mainstreaming is not just about women. It recognises that men and women have different concerns and experiences and aims to integrate these in every stage of the policymaking process, from design to implementation to evaluation.

This is not a new concept in Malaysia. There has been top-down acknowledgement from the previous government of the need for gender-responsive budgeting. The previous government also established gender-focal teams (GFTs) to disseminate the responsibility for gender equity across all ministries. But questions about implementation needs to be raised.

With no official framework on gender mainstreaming in place, it is difficult to ascertain what kinds of views on gender equity drive the GFT’s action. There have also been little to no reporting on whether the personnel staffing GFTs have been trained to understand how gender inequity may be perpetuated by poorly designed policies nor has there been reporting on key success indicators GFTs aim to achieve. Ultimately, this is where the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (KPWKM) needs to institute mechanisms on accountability.

It is also important that the ministry reports publicly on progress and adopts a comprehensive gender mainstreaming strategy framework in a national blueprint. Effective action needs to begin at the highest levels of policymaking before it can be cascaded down. Without a more critical approach to gender mainstreaming, policy commitments to women’s empowerment would be rendered purely symbolic.

But it is not just policymaking that needs restrategising when it comes to gender equity, firms also have an organisational duty to support women in the workplace. The extent to which Malaysian employers understand the importance of gender equity is questionable. For example, the latest amendments to the Employment Act 1955 saw an increase in maternity leave from 68 days to 90, in line with international standards.

Survey results indicate that as a result, firms are now choosing not to hire women due to the costs incurred. Ideally, this is addressed by laws on hiring discrimination alongside sustainable financing arrangements like tripartite funding where the cost of leave is shared among employers, employees and the government.

But policy solutions aside, the results point to the failure of firms to recognise how even beyond social justice and ethical imperatives, there is a strong business case for gender equity in the workplace. Research indicates that firms benefit from instituting more gender-sensitive practices. These benefits include better financial performance, improved employee engagement and loyalty, facilitation of more diverse opinions and as a result, more innovative decision-making, enhanced attraction and retention of talent.

This is where government policy can hold employers accountable. For example, gender pay gap reporting, as mandated in countries like the UK for firms with more than 250 employees, has revealed consistent patterns of men earning more than women and highlighted industries where the pay gap is largest.

Mandated gender pay gap reporting is an example of a data-driven approach towards transparency that is worth emulating in Malaysia. Providing incentives to establish family friendly policies – like shared parental leave, flexible work and on-site childcare centres – is equally important as benefits accrue, not only to women, but all adults with caregiving responsibilities.

At the crux of it, IWD is an opportunity to engender change that is both ambitious yet specific enough to be achievable, data-driven and measurable, publicised for transparency and accountability, and regularly monitored and reported.

The pathway towards gender equity – in policymaking and at the workplace – has already been laid out across the world with a wealth of available resources that can be adapted to the Malaysian context. It is now time for Malaysia to play catch up or risk falling behind and failing its women.

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