Strong, determined and highly skilled Malaysian female leaders will hopefully empower an entire generation of women to bring about a paradigm shift towards gender equality in the country.

THE year draws to a close. Bottom lines, performance evaluations, and hopefully, some salary negotiations are to be scheduled soon. Where does Malaysia stand in regards to fair treatment for women in the workplace?

Of course we are, once again, talking about gender wage gap. Google “wage gap” or “pay gap” and you may find more information than you care to read about, on a global as well as national level.

Two years to go before Malaysia reaches the planned high-income nation status in 2020. Surely such archaic notions as different pay, or different value and appreciation, for the same work between male and female employees can’t be a realistic concept in this day and age anymore.

Regrettably, the subject is much more complex than just figures on a payslip. Some will insist that yes, unfortunately, women in Malaysia and everywhere else have a long way to go until they achieve equality in remuneration. All the while, others will argue just as convincingly that the gender wage gap is nothing more than a tenacious myth.

Both claims are true.

Numbers show a clear picture, or so we think. According to the official portal of the Department of Statistics Malaysia for 2016, the mean monthly salaries show a four per cent wage gap in favour of male employees, while the median figures show a difference of just under three per cent, again in favour of men. In view of these numbers, some will claim that the difference is really not that significant. Others will be of the opinion that even a small difference is still not justifiable.

But figures, and statistics in particular, can be misleading. Looking at average wages for all levels and age groups in the entire workforce of a country compares to painting a canvas with a very large paintbrush. Thus, a detailed picture would require a brush fine enough to compare each position separately.

Such an endeavour would grossly exceed the size of this commentary. It is interesting to note, however, that in average, Malaysian women in the age bracket of 25 to 34 earn more than their male counterparts. This seems to indicate that the real problem lies in Malaysian women’s need for maternity leave. A career break of a mere two to three years severely impacts their further earning opportunities, as the imbalance of paid wages after the age of 35 far surpasses the aforementioned three to four per cent.

While younger employees of both genders are quite comparable as far as skills, experience and preferences go, a clear-cut and fair comparison in the age bracket of 35 to 65 becomes excessively complex. If it were that simple, and women really do the same work for less pay, no employer in his right mind would ever consider hiring a man.

Discrimination within the labour force is still a fact, however. Mothers are perceived as less dedicated to their work, less willing or available to work overtime, to travel for business, to pursue high-impact careers. It stands to reason that the discrimination against women is rooted in long-standing social concepts, rather than in the context of the modern workplace.

The perception of men doing the “hard” work of hunting, fighting, building, thus being associated with rationality and reason, dates back to the archaic era of cave men. In contrast, women rearing children and caring for the social wellbeing of the community were and still are linked to emotional and instinctive “soft” qualities.

Even without the intention to discriminate against a female job applicant, a human resource manager will inevitably have a different set of expectations towards her. Sadly, this is even true for female HR recruiters. Too many women rejoining the labour force after a maternity break will play right into that stereotype themselves as well.

Such prejudice is not only sad, it is also not realistic. Many foreigners getting an insight into the Malaysian public and private top echelon are pleasantly surprised to find more women represented than they expected.

Strong, determined and highly skilled female leaders, such as Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz (former Bank Negara Malaysia governor), Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri, to name a few, show that Malaysia is well on its way to overcome gender bias.

Hopefully, their example will empower an entire generation of women to bring about a dearly needed paradigm shift towards gender equality in our modern Malaysian society.

The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition, and
unapologetically insubordinate

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