Malaysia’s Women Are Falling Behind | International Women’s Day 2017

Women are half of the nation’s potential. But that’s not what the statistics show.

The theme for International Women’s Day tomorrow is “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”. Like previous years, this theme is part of the United Nations’ broader agenda to achieve complete gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls by 2030.

With just one day to go till International Women’s Day, let’s look at how far we are to achieving that goal.

Each year, the World Economic Forum publishes a report on the gender gap. This aptly named measure compares the relative difference between men and women across four key areas – health, education, economy, and politics.

How did Malaysia do?

Source: World Economic Forum

Not so good, according to the 2016 report. Out of 144 countries, we came in at 106. On the gender gap, where a score of 1 represents perfect equality of men and women, we scored 0.66. That’s second last in the whole South East Asian region. Worldwide, we’re worse off than countries like Gambia, Malawi, and Bangladesh.

Here’s how we scored across the board. Compared to the global average, we’re doing okay on education and health. But our score is dragged down by how our women fare in politics and the economy.

Our below average ranking in political participation is pretty much a given – we have had no female heads of state, and women make up 10% and 6% of Parliament and ministerial positions.

Which leaves the economy. In a country where our girls and boys are almost equally educated, what explains this low score? Most of it is due to how women experience the workforce compared to men. A new brief released by the economic think tank Khazanah Research Institute peers into this worrying gap a little more.

Women in Malaysia’s economy

In Malaysia, nearly half of all working-age women are not working or looking for a job, compared to less than a fifth of men, according to their previous research. That might not seem too surprising on its own, but when you compare this to our neighbouring countries, this gap is one of the largest in South East Asia. A 2013 Labour Force Survey found that 66.9% of women who avoid seeking work do so because of housework.

Source: World Economic Forum

And if a woman tries to enter the Malaysian workforce, she’ll find it harder than a man. The unemployment rate – the proportion of people who have spent the last 6 months looking for a job without success –  is higher for women than it is for men. In 2015, a woman was 18% more likely to be unwillingly unemployed than a man. 

A deeper look reveals something even more worrying. The women who are finding it hardest to be employed are those with university degrees. More women with tertiary-level education are unemployed compared to those without any formal education. This is the complete opposite of men. These statistics lead to a chilling inference: that as a woman in Malaysia, the more educated you are, the harder it is for you to find a job.

Take a look at this graph. The unemployment rate of university-educated women in Malaysia is almost equal to that of uneducated men. 

Source: Khazanah Research Institute

If we assume that women and men are equally educated, are equally as good at their jobs, and are equally desired by employers, the two lines should look exactly the same. There should be no difference in the employability of equally-educated men and women. So why don’t we see that? Are women losing out on more professional jobs because they are less capable than men? Do employers prefer to hire men? Or are university-educated women simply more picky with the jobs they accept?

There’s no way to know for certain without further study, say Khazanah’s researchers. These statistics only reveal trends, and not causes.

So what’s going on?

While these statistics do not necessarily mean that women are kept out of the workforce because of direct discrimination, there are other factors might drive them away. Women consistently earn less than men at every job level, are far less likely than men to hold higher level positions, and are discriminated against when pregnant.

Whatever else may be behind the scarcity of women in Malaysia’s workforce, it is almost certainly not because women are “blaming their gender for their incapabilities”, as Pahang Women and Family Development, Communications and Multimedia Committee Chair Shahaniza Shamsuddin suggested earlier this week. In fact, a report by the United Nations Development Programme attributes it to a lack of opportunity, rather than capability.

But it’s not all bad. On a more optimistic note, Malaysia is committed to supporting women and increasing the number of women in the workforce. We’ve also taken heartening steps towards empowering women over the years.

The World Economic Forum predicts that it will be another 169 years before the gender gap closes fully in 2186. That’s a long time from 2030. If we are to meet the UN’s goals sooner rather than later, we have to empower women and girls by valuing their ambitions and contributions. Starting with our own country.

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