Malaysia is a country of contrasts and paradoxes. This applies also to how women behave and how they are perceived.
As March 8th is the day celebrating Women across the world, it is a good day to reflect on the position of women in Malaysian cultures.
A patriarchal society
Malaysia, as many countries in Asia, has very patriarchal family structures. The father is clearly the head of the family and sons still often have a privileged role to play. I have heard countless stories of women having to fight for their right to higher education, across the many cultures of Malaysia.
Yet it would be inaccurate to say that all women in Malaysia have to be obedient silent wives as a group tried to promote a few years back.
There are examples of great women figures in Malaysia: from the Queens of Langkasuka who ruled the kingdom in the 15th century to today prominent women in arts, business (Tan Sri Dato' Sri Dr. Zeti Akhtar Aziz, governor of Bank Negara) and science (Dr Mazlan Otham, who created the Malaysian Space Agency and went on to be the head of UN Office for Outer space Affairs in Vienna).
Despite these examples who are great role models, many women still face hurdles to make their voices heard and their contributions recognized in the workplace.
Feminism the Malaysian way
The use of the word “feminism” in Malaysia is an ongoing debate- seen by some as a western concept not adapted to the Malaysian reality. Nurul Huda Jamaludin, a freelance journalist, gave a good account of how Feminism is still a Dirty Word in Malaysia in 2015. She explained that this is largely due to the fact some believe that women’s rights are already secured in the Quran.
So should women in Malaysia openly fight for equal rights?
For many Malaysian women the answer is Yes! For them there is a need in for more awareness, discussions and actions to bring more gender equality in Malaysian society. Numbers and research seem to prove them right. According to the UN Development Program in 2012, only 49,5% of women of working age were actually employed (as opposed to 80% of the men). Other researches done by the ministry of human resources show at that at senior officer or managerial level, women earn on average only half of what men earn.
Groups like Sisters In Islam (SIS), AWAM and WAO address larger societal issues and there are also initiatives that focus on equality for women in the work environment.
Women at Work
Talent Corp for instance wants to promote diversity and inclusion, with a focus on gender equality. Hence, it is relevant to open the discussion on Women at Work and the gender dynamics in the workplace.
In writing and presenting “Women at Work”, Realex team gathered many testimonials of what women experience in the workplace (see below to know more about it).
What came out of these testimonials, is that yes, in the workplace women have to deal with gender stereotypes. One participant shared how she often has to fit in a “man’s world” to get things done. Others prefer to use the stereotypes to their advantage as they give them short cuts to achieve their goals.
However, the most important idea that emerged is that it is not the sole responsibility of men to make things change. Women should take the lead to encourage more equality in the workplace not by fitting in but by inspiring respectful behaviors.
In conclusion, we sensed that many women would like a more inclusive workplace, but not many are able or willing to push for change. They simply accept that is a given situation that they have to “cope” with.
The first step toward a change is to encourage awareness and discussions to generate new options. Realex “Women At Work” is a platform where such discussion and experimentation happen.