Malaysia’s missing women workers

Hamidah Naziadin (pic), CIMB Group chief people officer, says the bank has a staff rejuvenation programme that allows employees to take up to six months’ unpaid leave before returning to their jobs. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Hamidah Naziadin (pic), CIMB Group chief people officer, says the bank has a staff rejuvenation programme that allows employees to take up to six months’ unpaid leave before returning to their jobs. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng

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KUALA LUMPUR, July 1 — Aged 25, Norfatin Syakila Rosli quit her job as a banking executive to care for her newborn, after working just two years. She does not plan to return to work.

For the young mother who hopes to have four to five children, a typical office job won’t work. Her previous workplace imposed long working hours into the night, but had no creche or flexible work arrangements, she told The Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.

“If there was a nursery, it’d be easy. I would have considered staying on even if I were to go home late because my child would be nearby,” Norfatin Syakila said.

Despite the economic value of women in the workforce, many companies in Malaysia are still reluctant to encourage female involvement in a country that recently had the lowest female labour force participation level in the Asean region at 46 per cent, according to the World Bank’s “Malaysia Economic Monitor November 2012” report.

“It’s a question of mindset,” Johan Merican, CEO of government agency TalentCorp, told The Malay Mail Online in a recent interview, referring to the lack of family-friendly facilities and flexible work policies at most corporations in Malaysia.

“There seems to to be greater buy-in at the leadership level. It’s the middle management that are hesitant because they have more immediate business targets,” he added.

According to the World Bank report, increasing Malaysia’s female labour force participation rate to 57 per cent would raise GDP growth by 0.4 per cent per year.  

Johan said slightly more than half of working-age Malaysian women are now participating in the labour market, citing 52.4 per cent for 2013.

He added that the government is targeting 55 per cent next year, even as Malaysia aims to be a developed country by 2020.

Lowest in East Asia

In its 2012 report, the World Bank observed that Malaysia’s female labour force participation was only at 46 per cent and lower than the middle-income country’s neighbours like Singapore (60 per cent) and Thailand (70 per cent), and significantly lower than high-income countries like the UK (70 per cent) and Sweden (77 per cent).

Between 500,000 and a whopping 2.3 million Malaysian women are “absent” from the labour market, in the sense that the number of females working or seeking employment out of all working-age women is lower in Malaysia compared to other countries, according to the World Bank.

“Malaysia’s level of labor force participation among women is the lowest in East Asia and below the level that would be expected given its level of development,” said the report.

“The difference between the participation rates of men and women, known as the ‘participation gap’, is estimated to be approximately 15 percentage points on average in East Asian and Pacific countries. In contrast, Malaysia’s female-male participation gap is almost three times larger, at 44 percentage points,” the report added.

The World Bank noted that Malaysia’s gender gap in the labour market cost 23 per cent of income per capita.

There is also a wage gender gap as the mean monthly salary for Malaysian women is RM1,838, lower than men’s RM1,906, according to the Statistic Department’s Salaries and Wages Survey Report 2012.

The unemployment rate for Malaysian women is 3.2 per cent, slightly higher than men’s 2.9 per cent, according to the Statistic Department’s Labour Force Survey Report 2012.

Rigid policies

A 2013 study by accounting firm PwC Malaysia commissioned by TalentCorp showed that majority of corporations in Malaysia did not offer family-friendly facilities or flexible work arrangements.

“Companies say this sounds nice to have but ask why should we do it and it sounds complicated and costly, and we tell them that in the long run, you have no choice,” Johan said.

“We tell them that family-friendly policies are better to attract and retain women from the talent pool,” he added.

According to the survey of public listed companies in Malaysia, only 27 per cent provided a designated car park for pregnant women, 18 per cent had a nursing room for mothers to pump breast milk and only a mere 6 per cent provided a childcare centre.

On flexible work policies, only 12 per cent allowed telecommuting, 16 per cent offered flexi hours, 12 per cent implemented job sharing, and 33 per cent had shift swapping policies, according to the “Diversity in the Workplace” survey that had 122 respondents across 11 industries.

Interview with Talent Corporation CEO Johan Mahmood Merican at the Surian Tower in Mutiara Damansara, on July 1, 2014. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Interview with Talent Corporation CEO Johan Mahmood Merican at the Surian Tower in Mutiara Damansara, on July 1, 2014. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

“We’re focusing our efforts on employers,” said Johan, referring to TalentCorp’s FlexWorkLife initiative that started middle of last year to boost women’s participation in the workforce.

“We are encouraged. We just need to build the momentum,” he added.

The culture of working late

Some women that The Malay Mail Online spoke to, who had left their jobs to raise young children, related how their Malaysian workplaces did not have flexible work arrangements or nurseries, and had a culture of working late.

Tan Chooi Peng left her job as a senior executive at an insurance company last year, after working there for four years, to take care of her baby, pointing out that her workplace did not have a creche or flexible work policies like telecommuting.

“It’s the culture here. Some bosses think they have to see your face and they need to see you stay back late, so I don’t think there’s a way for companies here to let you work from home,” Tan, 39, told The Malay Mail Online recently.

“If they had an option like in a week, you can spend three days in the office and two days at home, it may have helped. When you want to leave, they say they’ll raise your pay, but it has nothing to do with pay. I just needed someone to take care of my kid,” she added.

Companies’ best practices

While most corporations in Malaysia do not offer family-friendly facilities or flexible work arrangements, companies like CIMB Bank, IBM Malaysia and BASF Asia-Pacific Service Centre Sdn Bhd have gone against the grain to implement such policies that promote a work-life balance, all of which have a significant number of women leaders.

Hamidah Naziadin, CIMB Group chief people officer, said the bank has a staff rejuvenation programme that allows employees to take up to six months’ unpaid leave before returning to their jobs.

Women also make up half of CIMB’s middle management and 41 per cent of their senior management, she said.

“When somebody leaves for that programme, their job is shared among the existing staff,” the human resources chief in Malaysia’s second-largest bank told The Malay Mail Online.

CIMB Bank also provides a creche and a nursing room equipped with a refrigerator for breastfeeding mothers.

Asked if there have been any resistance, Hamidah said the bank’s policies have been “very well-received” and that middle management was “very supportive”.

IBM Malaysia, on the other hand, provides flexible working hours, telecommuting, part-time work like a two- or three-day work week, 90 days’ maternity leave and nursing rooms for breastfeeding mothers.

“There was some resistance among middle management when flexi policies were first introduced. The greatest concerns being: ‘would the job get done? Will timelines and deadlines be met?’ The concerns turned out to be non-concerns,” IBM Malaysia human resources director Kenneth Ho told The Malay Mail Online in an email interview.

“We have also had a long-time and strong focus on supporting work-life integration and have found that with flexible work options, our teams enjoy greater work-life integration and are thus able to better serve our clients. Our commitment to work-life integration has put the company ahead of the curve and resulted in increased employee retention, enhanced productivity, and lower absenteeism,” he added.

Women comprise half of the senior leadership team in the Malaysian branch of the global IT company and almost 50 per cent of IBM Malaysia’s female employees are managers.

BASF Asia-Pacific Service Centre also offers flexible working hours where employees can arrive any time between 7am and 10 am, as long as the core hours of 10am to 4pm and a 40-hour workweek are fulfilled.

The shared service organisation, which supports the Asia Pacific region of the global chemical company, also allows employees to work from home up to four days a month and recently implemented a job-sharing programme in January.

“While we focus on driving a high performance culture at work, we also actively encourage a healthy work-life balance for our employees,” Amanda Oh, human resources director of BASF Asia-Pacific Service Centre, said in an interview.

Women make up half of BASF Asia-Pacific Service Centre’s middle and top management.

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