October 7, 2022

Keeping women in the workforce

3 min read

ALTHOUGH Malaysia has done well in achieving gender parity in education, with 63% of public university enrolment being women, a significant number of them tend to drop out of the workforce due to personal or family commitments.

The female labour force participation rate (LFPR) for 2017 was 54.7% compared to 80.1% for males. Countries like South Korea and Japan have a “double peak pattern” where women who left the workforce would return when they are able to.

In contrast, Malaysia has a “single peak pattern” where those women in their late 20s and 30s who leave do not return due to their focus on the family, according to a 2017 TalentCorp report.

The 2018 Malaysian Labour Force Survey shows that 60.2% of women who are not employed cited housework, including child and elderly care, as the main reason for not seeking work. Housework, which includes family responsibilities, is also a common problem raised by women in the current workforce that prevents them from taking heavier responsibilities or leadership roles in the workplace.

There are a lot of factors contributing to the lower rate of women participation in the workforce compared to men. The external barriers that are frequently addressed are lack of day care facilities for their children, no options for flexible working hours, absence of support or training capacity for women to return to the workforce after a career break and lack of gender diversity policies in the workplace.

However, there are several internal barriers among and within the women themselves which need to be addressed. Here are five reflections on how we can break the barrier.

1. There’s a need to encourage a more balanced relationship and 50/50 partnership in a household. Husbands and wives need to share housework and childcare equally when both are employed full time. We need to stop being cynical about fathers who do a better job at domestic chores than the mother. Women should not worry too much about letting their partners help in things that they are great at. Men can be a real partner by supporting their wife’s career and spend more time helping with the children at home.

2. Local movies and television shows need to showcase contemporary male role models who proactively share family responsibilities as well as female role models who show that it is possible to have both family and a career. This, of course, excludes movies such as Lady Boss, which encourages a stereotype of the horrible female boss.

3. We must address the misconception that mothers are more committed to family than work. This myth penalises women because employers assume that they won’t live up to expectations of professional dedication. We know that women’s career aspirations do not differ from men’s and their ambition grows as they gain more professional experience. The reverse is true for men, who are expected to put their careers first. Thus, we have to stop judging men primarily by their professional success.

4. We must raise awareness on gender equality and address gender bias and stereotyping within our own family members and colleagues at the workplace. For example, during festive gatherings, many homes still embody gender segregation where women are expected to do most of the cleaning and cooking in the kitchen while men can hang out with their guests in the living room. These are times when young mothers can start to educate their boys and girls to share equal housekeeping tasks, including chores in the kitchen. When we see a colleague crying about how she is a victim of gender bias, it is important for us to reach out to her.

5. From the perspective of Islamic law, it could be particularly worthwhile to raise awareness of the often overlooked possibility for women, especially those who are already working before marriage, to add a ta’liq (term of agreement) when the marriage is registered to the effect that the husband would not in the future prevent the wife from working. It is about time, too, that the state religious departments consider including a chapter on equal household responsibilities for working men in the compulsory pre-marriage courses.


Kuala Lumpur

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