The topic of the gender wage gap has often been on the table in Malaysia amongst various policymakers and as seen in the first part of this article, the disparity between the average salary of males and females have not narrowed in the past 10 years. The labour force participation rate (LFPR) of women in July 2021 was 54.6%, and women in Malaysia are found to be more educated compared to their male counterparts; even so, the disproportion of earnings is present .
Women are leading across the globe in terms of education and training. They are going to be the largest consumer group. Can you imagine what will happen when income levels go up? What better choice can companies make than to have women in decision-making roles to cater to that market? I think the potential is enormous. – Prof. Mahendhiran Sanggaran Nair, Monash Malaysia’s Vice President (Research and Development)
Malaysia has seen an ongoing effort to reduce the gender wage gap since 1957. More notably in the 1970s where there was an increased entry of women into higher education institutions in an effort to educate and empower them. There was a further acceleration in 2018 with a special budget allowance to run programmes, set up structures and initiatives to encourage women to re-enter the workforce and continue to build their careers. The year was dubbed ‘Women Empowerment Year’.
The gender wage gap is a complex issue with interlinking reasons for its continual existence. One of the root causes of this disparity is due to the attached gender biases towards women in the workplace, particularly boardrooms[7,8]. We will explore further the efforts of both government and grassroots organisations in helping to close this gap.
Call For Greater Transparency
The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) voiced out for the adoption of foreign policy such as the one that is practised in the United Kingdom. It involves transparency from the companies to report the average wage of all employees, the proportion of each gender in different salary brackets and the percentage of men and women employees who receive bonuses.
The government had in 2016 through the TalentCorp initiative announced the likelihood of declaring management and workforce composition, however, since then, it is unclear whether it was implemented. Even so, the element of transparency of pay should be included in the upcoming policies.
Keep Pushing The Glass Ceiling
At the same time, it was found that women are less likely to discuss pay raises with their employers, and in some instances, they are seen as pushy when negotiating for one and often the request for a raise is lower than their male counterparts. It was also found that females who enter formal employment are willing to work for lower wages. This is not an isolated issue as globally, men are four times more likely to negotiate for a raise and would be perceived positively, seen as confident and assertive. Despite these negative costs, it is still crucial for women to speak up and negotiate for a pay raise.
The government previously mandated that boards of large corporations should consist of 30% of women by 2020. Rising to the challenge, the ‘30% Club’ initiative was founded in 2015 to advocate for more female directors in the boardroom.
Rewarding Personal Choices
Women in the workplace need particular enablers to help them juggle and flourish in both private and corporate life. In particular, the establishment of childcare facilities in the private sector would encourage women to return to the workforce as it would give them peace of mind. Alternatively, subsidised child care is a possible solution as it was reported that childminding services cost at least RM 600 per month in 2020. An attempt to reduce the cost by the government is through the National Economic Recovery Plan (Penjana) as registered childcare centres were provided with one-off grants valued up to RM5000.
In the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-2020), the government sets a target that by 2020, at least 56.55% of women will be in the job market . This includes the introduction of the ‘Career Comeback Program’ through Talentcorp Malaysia.
In 2020, the ‘Women@Work’ initiative fortified childcare facilities at the workplace with an injunction of RM30 million and increased the maternity leave from 60 days to 90 days in the private sector. Women were encouraged to return to work under this initiative and were provided with a monthly incentive worth RM500 per month along with a RM300 incentive to employers for a duration of two years[5,18].
Women Exploring Different Careers
It was found that in 2020, only 26% of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates in Malaysia are women. The low number could have been influenced by personal choices of entering into service-driven jobs to ensure enough time is provisioned to caretaking duties. Another possible reason is the lack of role models in these industries that are traditionally male-dominated .
A government-private collaboration with YTL Construction called ‘Women in Rail Malaysia’ managed to introduce young girls to female role models, further promoting STEM to impressionable students in schools in Johor. Career talks were conducted to enlighten them to careers in sciences, engineering and even the railway industry .
At an education level, the Energy, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (ESTECC) programme launched in 2019 aimed at increasing interest and knowledge of STEM subjects to students nationwide and this has been consistent with the Education Blueprint 2013–2025.
In light of the Fourth Industrial Revolution the services sector is quickly evolving and becoming increasingly automated. Women who are predominantly drawn to the services sector need to equip themselves with the skills and knowledge in order to stay relevant and competitive in the workplace.
e-Homemakers, a private organisation, have provided computers and business training to unemployed women and women from low-income households to improve digital literacy. As an example, these grassroots initiatives are pivotal in encouraging women to start their own home-based businesses. Single mothers in particular benefit the most from opportunities that allow them to work-from-home, care for their family and earn an income.
Deflecting Gender Discrimination
Contrary to popular beliefs, gender biases and discrimination towards women are not only restricted to men. A UN report indicated that at least 90% of women in the world hold biases against women. In Malaysia, only 1.46% of the respondents reported holding no gender biases and at least 80% of Malaysians agreed that men are better suited to be political leaders.
Of course, there are actions taken to protect women from discrimination as the Malaysian government identified women as one of the nine target groups under Malaysia’s Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 (SPV 2030). Before the political upheaval in early 2020, reforms to improve women’s rights after laborious years of women’s rights activism have been tabled such as the Sexual Harassment Act, Gender Equality Act, anti-stalking laws, paternity leave and protection against discrimination in the workplace .
However, the laws are yet to be billed and implemented. The fight continues for women’s rights groups such as Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW) who are constantly advocating for a Gender Equality Act in Malaysia.
On the other hand, women rights activists have suggested that the education system should be uprooted and shaken up from as early as pre-school. It is high time for the long-standing stereotypes that boys are smarter than girls and girls shouldn’t like certain subjects to be removed for good. Not only that, respecting one another is a value that should be embedded in children at school.
To address occupational segregation, we must challenge gender stereotypes and expand the range of career options available to women and girls. We must also remove barriers that hinder women and girls from pursuing careers in traditionally male-dominated fields. – Tan Heang-Lee, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) Advocacy and Communications Officer 
Adaptive Solutions Moving Forward
The International Labor Organisation suggests that it may take at least 70 years to bridge the gender wage gap if no concrete measures are taken. In Malaysia’s economic landscape, we see that the government and private organisations have been actively trying to close the gap, however, the pandemic has caused a setback with a 0.5% decrease in women’s labour participation rate in 2021.
The pandemic has changed the way people work and live and government policies regarding women in the workplace may need revisiting. Organisations working to help support and empower women in careers will need innovative solutions to keep and grow the female workforce.
A study by Hays, a worldwide recruiting firm, suggests that an overhaul of old structures need to take place. The flexibility of location and working hours will be a growing trend. More corporations will be focused on outputs and the delivery of the agreed tasks rather than the need to be physically present in the office from 9am-5pm. This flexibility would allow working women to have an improved work-life balance and continue building their careers.
Explore our sources:
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- CDD (2015). Kajian faktor persekolahan yang mempengaruhi wanita yang berjaya dalam STEM [A study on schooling factors for women role models in STEM]. Putrajaya: Ministry of Education.
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