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This is the first of a three-part series of articles on retaining women in the workforce.
KUALA LUMPUR, July 8 (Bernama) – Her voice wavering, Nurul Abdullah admits she is exhausted. Mother to two boys on the spectrum, she has not had a good night’s sleep in years.
Her hours are topsy turvy. She can only go to sleep when they sleep, which can be 10 am, and be awake when they wake up, which is around 3 pm. Getting them to go to sleep at night is impossible, she told Bernama, as their disability prevents them from understanding or communicating with her.
“That’s the problem with kids with autism. You can’t really discipline them but it depends. Some kids you can, some kids you can’t,” she said, adding that when she tried, her oldest would get upset and pee on the sofa and carpets.
While she is up, she also makes breakfast and lunch for her husband to take to work, which is around 7 or 8 am. Then she sleeps, occasionally waking up to check on the boys or to do chores.
Clad in a comfortable pair of pants and a Batman T-shirt, with a hairpin comb holding back her bangs, she laughed ironically when asked if she wanted to work.
“I did work, I did try when Dom (her youngest) was a year old. Part-time. I enjoyed working there because it was a big company and you get to go out and dress nicely, that kind of thing. But it was tiring. Because I had to do everything,” she said, citing a lack of childcare options.
In the end, she decided to be a stay-at-home mom.
She acknowledged that it would probably be easier for her to go back to work if her children had been born neurotypical, but pointed out that women with regular kids still struggled to get childcare.
Nurul has a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in journalism and communications. Like an estimated two million women in Malaysia, she has chosen to leave the workforce in order to do the work of caring for children or family.
Already one of the lowest among ASEAN member states, the female labour participation rate in Malaysia is barely improving as the country struggles to get out of the pandemic-inflicted economic downturn. While the economy is starting to recover, with more jobs available and more people added to the labour force, most of the gains have been among men.
Women, despite being the most educated demographic, are slower to recover, recording a dismal 0.3 percent increase from 55.2 in April 2021 to 55.5 percent labour participation rate in April 2022, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DoSM). Men’s labour participation rate, on the other hand, was 82.3 percent in April 2022, an increase of 1.3 percent from April 2021. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and World Bank recorded the same trend but with slightly lower numbers.
Economics professor at Sunway University Prof Yeah Kim Leng told Bernama in order for any country to thrive, it needs to have a high number of participating labour force from both genders.
“When you look at economic growth and development, one of the key factors that contribute to growth is actually the amount of labour that country has put into production. So the more you utilise the resources, the faster the economy can grow,” he said.
Experts, supported by research, say that the gap between the genders is because women are more likely to stay at home to care for their children or family members, a trend that COVID-19 accelerated. It is the most common reason Malaysian women cited for not joining the labour force – DoSM figures have it at 42 percent out of 7.27 million women.
Women’s equal participation in the country’s economic activities has long been a goal for the government. Over the decades, the female labour participation rate, a measure of how many of a country’s working-age women are working or open to work, was slowly improving from 43 percent in 2010 to 52 percent in 2019, according to ILO statistics. Meanwhile, DoSM figures in 2019 recorded a 55.6 percent female participation rate.
“It was increasing actually, we were very happy to see these increases. And we had targeted policies in place to increase female labour force participation. But during the pandemic, there was a sharp decline to 51.3 percent,” said Associate Prof Dr Shanthi Thambiah who is with the gender studies programme at Universiti Malaya.
Malaysia is not the only one affected. The pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on the female labour participation rate in most countries and whatever strides women have made in previous years. Globally, while many lost their jobs due to the pandemic and health restrictions that came with it, it was women who mainly bore the brunt of the economic downturn.
A 2020 McKinsey analysis estimated that women comprised 54 percent of job losses when the pandemic hit although they accounted for only 39 percent of global employment. In the United States alone, almost 56 percent of people who left work since the start of the pandemic were women, despite being almost half of the workforce, according to the US Census Current Population Survey as of November 2020.
Experts and governments are concerned that the pandemic may have wiped out all the gains women have made in trying to achieve gender parity. COVID-19 has also shown how vulnerable women’s jobs were and laid bare the gender imbalance when it comes to care work.
Economist Datuk Dr Madeline Berma told Bernama women were already working, it was just that most of the care work they do was unpaid labour.
“The most important thing is getting women back into the workforce, especially after COVID-19, because that's where income comes in.
“In economics, it is important. With money in hand, they can spend. So it’s them as consumers, them as taxpayers and also as producers,” she said.
The impact of women exiting the workforce is significant. Having more women working and earning income results in higher wages for men and women, a University of Akron economist found. And McKinsey reports that with gender equality, Malaysia has the potential to add US$50 billion a year to its gross domestic product by 2025.
BARRIERS FOR WORKING WOMEN
Despite being the most educated demographic in Malaysia, women, who comprised 61 percent of the student body at universities in 2021 and over 56 percent of academicians, exit the workforce at a higher rate and do not return.
“We are one country that, you know, experiences only a single peak of joining the workforce. Women enter (the workforce after they graduate). Then they leave. They never come back. Other countries have a double peak,” said Berma, who is also the former director of the Tun Fatimah Hashim Women’s Leadership Centre at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
She told Bernama many women who left the workforce to raise their children or take care of their families found they could not return because there is a lack of care facilities to meet their needs.
According to a recently-released analysis by the Asia Foundation, done in collaboration with Merdeka Centre, raising a family, caring for family members and expensive childcare are the most common reasons Malaysian women leave the workforce.
The Asia Foundation study, which spanned several surveys from 2020 to 2022, also found that respondents considered childcare support and other care-related assistance, career development, flexible work arrangement, financial independence and mental health and well-being important for them to work and remain employed.
A 2018 Monster.com survey of 2,600 mothers across Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines found 75 percent quit their jobs because of a lack of flexibility, while 60 percent were worried about poor childcare for their children while they are at work and 55 percent said they have an unsupportive boss and work environment when it comes to balancing home and work life.
Another barrier is also gender discrimination as some employers may not want to hire women, thinking they will leave to have their own families. And if they do manage to return, it is harder for women to advance in their careers.
Shanthi, who was a principal consultant in a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Malaysian government study to increase and retain women in the workforce, said gender stereotypes were common in the labour market.
“If they have a choice of employing a male or female, they prefer (to hire) a male because they see women (as) less productive. If they are in the childbearing age group, you know, there'll be a reluctance in employing them,” she said.
Gender discrimination is not explicitly prohibited in Malaysia currently although the country is a signatory to the 1995 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Ironically, the government’s push to be more women-friendly, such as increasing maternity leave to 90 days, may discourage employers from hiring women. There is anecdotal evidence that some business owners preferred to hire men so they would not have to pay for maternity leave.
Economists and business experts frown on this practice, considering it a self-defeating move.
Randstad-Malaysia country director Fahad Naeem said having a more diverse workforce leads to higher levels of creativity and productivity, in addition to more empathetic leadership behaviour and better-balanced leadership dynamics.
“When more women join the workforce, companies perform better financially, overall wages increase and the economy improves. For women, pursuing a career also means being able to be financially independent, which would empower them to forge a better career and life outlook for themselves and their families,” he told Bernama via email.
Nurul knows the benefits of working and earning an income. She thinks it will help her mental health and well-being as well. But for now, it is not on the cards for her. Her foremost concern is her children.
Something needs to give.
“I (need) more support, like help with babysitting. I refuse to get a maid. So I don’t see any way for me to get back to work unless the boys are able to start school regularly. Maybe I can do something, like work part-time. That's my plan anyway,” she said.
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