What It’s Really Like To Be A Woman In Politics And Tech In Malaysia: Hannah Yeoh And Yuh Wen Foong Speak

What does red lipstick have to do with women’s rights? A whole lot!

Wearing red lipstick was once considered socially unacceptable for women, and they weren’t allowed to vote either. To make a statement, Elizabeth Arden famously equipped the female suffragettes who marched for the right to vote in 1912 with bold red lipstick! How badass is that?

More than a century later, Elizabeth Arden is continuing their legacy with their March On campaign. The plan is to donate US$1 million to UN Women with 100% of the proceeds from the sale of their limited edition March On red lipstick.

At the local launch of the campaign last week, Elizabeth Arden Malaysia invited two women in power – founder of influencer marketing platform SushiVidYuh Wen Foong and Selangor State Assembly Speaker Hannah Yeoh – to talk about what it’s like to work in fields where women are clearly under-represented: tech and politics.

Elizabeth Arden’s Jean Loh, Yuh Wen Foong, and Hannah Yeoh

Here’s what they had to say.

What’s the biggest challenge women face in your workforce?

Yuh Wen: The biggest challenge I feel for women in the workforce is sexual harassment. It’s come up quite a lot in the past few years, and in the tech space too. Just recently the Uber CEO and one of the principals of 500 Startups had to step down because of sexual harassment allegations and issues. So we definitely feel it in the tech space.

Hannah:  In law-making and politics, the lack of female representation is a real problem. Only the Selangor State Assembly has acceptable female representation at 30%, which meets the international standard. But 30% should not be our ceiling, it should be our starting point. Others like the Terengganu State Assembly has zero female representation. That means they’re making policies that affect women, men, and children – but with zero women in the house!

Many women are educated, but very few move up to become leaders at the top decision-making levels. To change this we must start changing the laws, starting with party constitution– like my party was the first to amend their constitution mandating 30% female representation. This quota works as a starting point to get enough women in politics. So a quota system gets you into the ring, but once you’re in there, you compete like everyone else.

Moving forward, I think the challenge will be to keep women at that level. And we can do so by making sure there’s flexible working hours, so employees aren’t forced to give up their duties either at work or home. That, to me, is the most important legislation we can fight for.

Who is a female role model you’ve looked up to throughout your career?

H: For me, it’s definitely Dato’ Ambiga. She’s not a politician, she’s a civil activist. What really caused me to respect her was what she did on the eve of the Bersih rally when she was essentially threatened by the police to call off the rally or risk being held accountable to any damages to the KL city. If I was in her place, I probably would have reconsidered out of that fear of liability. But she pushed on. So to me, someone who’s able to overcome that fear and press on– that made me really admire her.

YW: As a startup founder from the tech side, someone I admire is Dato’ Yasmin Mahmood, the CEO of the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC). She started in tech 20 years ago, eventually becoming the General Manager of Dell, HP and Microsoft. For a woman to be in tech 20 years ago, it was huge. Now she keeps pushing for all these great projects for Malaysia – the digital free trade zone, bringing in Alibaba, improving e-commerce logistics to make us an e-commerce hub, creating jobs. And every time she talks about digitising the country, she never forgets to talk about pushing women forward. I look up to her a lot and aspire to be like her.

Achieving work-life balance as a working woman, especially in a male-dominated field, can seem impossible. How do you do it?

H: First, I don’t feel sorry for declining work obligations because of my family. I don’t apologise – it’s my right. Don’t feel guilty. That’s how I look at it. Work is not everything. It’s important, but so is family. When I’m at work I give my 100% to work and when I’m at home I give 100% to my family. And because I can set my own flexible hours, I make sure I have blocks of time that are reserved purely for family when they need it.

YW: For me, it’s still a work in progress. It’s still a struggle because my job is so demanding, but at least I can say that I am happy today doing what I want to do. Compared to how I felt when I was working as a banker, and then as an actress, I’m much happier now. I may not have as much time as I’d like for the gym like I did before, but this happiness gives me a sense of balance.

What empowers you as a female leader?

H: It’s the support structure, for me. Your backup system, so to speak. Sometimes when I have to make very difficult decisions, I just need to know that there’s people to back me up even if I mess up. Whether it’s my party, my husband, my kids, or my friends, knowing there are still people who believe in me if I fail gives me courage to take risks and press on.

YW: I agree with Hannah on that. I didn’t have that support system. For most of my life, I didn’t believe I could be a tech founder. It was instilled in me as a child to just do enough, to not be too ambitious, to be a normal girl. But now, what empowers me is my team. I hire a bunch of people I feel are rebels and outcasts – like me – and we all support each other together. This sense of community and family makes all the difference.

What advice would you give young women who want to succeed in the workplace?

YW: Be bold when making decisions. The nature of Malaysian society and education doesn’t exactly train you to be decisive. But if I hadn’t been bold in my choices, if I had just sat around passively letting others make decisions for me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

H: It’s very strange to hear this from a politician, but this is my advice: if you’re in a workplace that’s full of workplace politics, then leave. There’s no more space for you to shine, energy is spent on politics rather than work, and the place becomes toxic. Just leave. Secondly, always be detailed and conscientious, no matter what field you’re in. That’s what makes employers choose one employee over others.

What are some changes we must make to face the future effectively?

YW: I think it’s our own mindsets. As women, we should support each other. Sometimes women can be not very nice to each other. We sometimes take away from others’ successes or critically pick on minute faults, instead of being supportive. If men are stereotypically egoistic, the stereotype for women is insecurity. If that’s true, we can overcome it if we change our mindsets to support each other. It starts with us.

H: Critical change comes from within, and a big part of that is to get rid of the victim mentality that can stop you from moving forward. Yes, there are times we go through disadvantageous situations, but if you keep thinking of yourself as a victim, you’ll never progress.

A lot of changes can come from within, but what are some changes you’d like to see from society to advance women empowerment?

H: The way to change society is through legislation and education. Our current education system isn’t so clear-cut because of the role of religion. Because religion here isn’t defined clearly, it creeps into education and society.

So we can talk about female empowerment, but if religion teaches you that your place is at home, it’s a confusing message. So I think it’s important for the role of religion to be defined clearly in our education system.

Secondly, legislation. But you can’t fight for legislation that serves women without enough women in politics! That’s why I go everywhere now encouraging women to enter politics and fix the legislation once and for all. But getting there isn’t easy. And unless you have empowered women, the bigger system can’t change.

YW: In the Malaysian tech space, we are lucky that there are three big organisations that are extremely pro-women. It starts from the top. It comes with the conscious effort from the leadership level to be aware of these issues.

H: Oh, and one last thing. There’s a movement in Malaysia right now telling young people not to vote – something women fought so hard for all those years ago. Now that we have the right to vote, don’t waste it! It’s a misuse of your rights. Don’t throw your vote away.

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The limited edition March On lipstick is available now at Elizabeth Arden counters for RM109. So wear those red lips with pride! 💋

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.