Addressing Gender Equality in the Malaysian Work Environment

By Arlene Wherrett, Vice President and Managing Director, Sage Asia

Ever wondered what it would be like to ‘swap genders’ in the workplace?

That’s what happened when Martin Schneider, an editor at a U.S. based movie-review website accidentally used his female colleague’s signature on emails he sent from the mailbox he shared with her. He tweeted the experience which made him realise that women may not get the same treatment in the workplace, which then went on to get thousands of views and shares, demonstrating that many people could relate to it.

As a result of that, he and his female colleague decided to undertake an experiment to understand the impact of gender bias. They decided to exchange signatures for a fortnight. They found that whilst he struggled to gain respect from clients, she was able to complete tasks more quickly as a result of using her male colleague’s name.

Whilst this was a simple experiment, gender bias has been well-documented by researchers across the world. Like many other nations, Malaysia too has its struggles in achieving equity for women in the workplace. Its ranking shifted only 2 spots from 106th to 104th position out of 144 countries in the WEF Global Gender Gap Report in 2017. However, whilst some may claim that the difference is not significant, the uptrend certainly shows that there is indeed hope for gender equality here in Malaysia.

According to the Salaries & Wages Survey Report, Malaysia, 2016-2017 by the Department of Statistics Malaysia, the mean monthly salaries show a 1.2 per cent wage gap in favour of male employees, however female employees recorded a higher growth of 9.1 percent while male employees recorded a 7.5 percent growth. Yet another encouraging development for Malaysia.

Strong, determined and highly skilled female leaders, such as the current first woman Deputy Prime Minister, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the first woman central bank governor for Malaysia, and Yeo Bee Yin, Minister of Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment; at 35 is the youngest female minister in Malaysian history, to name a few, shows that Malaysia is in the right direction towards gender equality.

To ensure Malaysia continues sustaining this uptrend towards gender equality, here are actionable steps that companies can take to ensure equality of opportunity.

#1 Implement gender neutral recruitment processes

Standardize interviews, anonymize CVs and use blind evaluation processes to help your company recruit from more diverse backgrounds and attract people based on skills, rather than gender. Vodafone and Unilever has found that blind evaluation procedures, removing gender from CVs and instead include work sample tests and neuroscientific tests of an applicant’s aptitude and skills, have helped them implement a more effective and unbiased recruitment process.

#2 Review salaries and standardize pay

Frequently review salaries with the eye to achieving parity between genders, races and other areas of diversity. When recruiting, clearly set the pay range offered on the size of the role and breadth of responsibility.

#3 Protect against unconscious bias

Educate employees about their own unconscious bias. Although this does not guarantee that attitudes will change, it does help employees to understand their biases and to work towards eliminating them.

#4 Have a clear policy on anti-discrimination

Create a clear, unbiased, anti-discrimination policy that ensures employees have a proper way to comment or report on inappropriate treatment in the workplace. Ensure everyone knows and understands the policy and penalties. A Unilever study found that women and men struggle to acknowledge gender discrimination and inappropriate behavior in the workplace. 67% of women said they feel pressured to overlook inappropriate action and more than half of both men and women don’t confront each other when witnessing this behavior.

#5 Provide flexible working and de-stigmatize shared parental leave

Shift your company mindset to assessing workers performance on their delivery and achievements rather than time spent in the office. Shared parental policies must be being given a greater spotlight in Malaysia to encourage a gender-balanced workforce.

#6 Ensure managers are actively encouraging women to progress

Cultivate an environment which encourages application for promotions and pay rises for female employees. At KPMG, when a promotion is advertised, managers are encouraged to check whether their high performing female colleagues have applied and if not ask why. Martin Blackburn, People Director at KPMG UK explains: ‘Where the men would apply for a role if they had 80% of the [required] skills, women would think they were missing 20% and not bother’, which is why it’s imperative that women must be encouraged to be bold, take risks and have faith in their capabilities.

I personally believe in the power of gender balanced teams, from providing a holistic view on strategies to enabling different styles of company leadership. At Sage Asia, where we have a corporate focus on diversity and inclusion, our 50/50 gender balanced senior management team have had a great impact on our company culture, dialogue and decision-making.

These practical steps, taken today, can help businesses in Malaysia play their rightful role in tackling the pertinent socio-economic issue of gender equality.

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