The Malaysian Insider: Discrimination keeps most Malaysian women out of formal job market, says report
By Anisah Shukry

Published 27 November 2014

Despite various initiatives, the number of Malaysian women employed in the formal workforce has remained persistently low over the years at below 50%, while those in the formal economy are earning less than men at every level of the job spectrum, states the Malaysia Human Development Report 2013.

Malaysian women continued to stay out of the formal labour market despite being highly educated, pointing to inflexible policies that hindered their participation in the workforce plus the continued perception that women were solely responsible for home and family care.

The report published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) also notes that low female participation in the workforce and wage discrimination between genders have implications for Malaysia's growth and fight to lift low-income households out of poverty.

For the past 20 years, the employment rate for women in Malaysia has remained below 50%, and was at 47.9% in 2011 and 49.5% in 2012, as opposed to the male workforce participation rate of nearly 80%, said the report launched on Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur.

This was an “unusually low” rate of female participation in the labour force, when compared with other countries in the region such as Thailand (69.9%), Singapore (62.9%) and Indonesia (53.3%) in 2011, said the report.

“The low labour force participation rate also means that out of the 9,555,700 women of working age in 2011, only 4,575,300 were in the labour force,” read the report.

“The remaining 4,980,400 – almost five million women, almost double that of men (2,009,900) – who could be gainfully employed were officially considered as not ‘working’ or not looking for a job.”

The report also acknowledged that there were women who were doing unpaid work and were also contributing to the economy and society through their reproductive roles, by being caregivers, or doing other informal work.

Wage discrimination by gender

Yet, for Malaysian women who did have paying jobs, their average earnings were less than that of their male peers' income across all occupations.

According to the 2008 statistics from the Ministry of Human Resources, men in senior officers and managerial positions were earning an average monthly salary of RM4,296, while women in the same positions earned almost half the amount, at RM2,522.

Men in the professional category earned an average of RM3,670, but their female peers earned RM2,848.

Even male “plant and machine operators and assemblers” earned an average of RM860 compared to their women counterparts’ average salary of RM623.

“Across all formal jobs, men make more money than women... this is wage discrimination purely on the basis of one’s gender but rationalised as the inherently inferior qualifications of women,” read the report.

Wage differences between men and women were bigger in high-end jobs, such as the professional category, as opposed to the low-income jobs like craft and service workers.

“These findings suggest that the capacity for upward mobility to narrow the earnings gap is limited and possibly systemically inhibited, most obviously in professional positions,” it read.

Educated but unemployed

Meanwhile, the number of unemployed women with tertiary education has been on the rise from 1990 to 2010, the report said.

This suggested that either more women were enrolling in fields of study that did not meet the market’s needs, or that the market was rigid towards women’s participation in the formal economy.

Women were also more likely to be found in services and clerical jobs, and continued to lag behind men at the top-end of the job spectrum in positions such as senior officers and managers, the report revealed.

“In 2010, there were over 600,000 men who occupied the post of 'senior officers and managers' while just over 200,000 women were in the same category... in 10 years, women’s share within the 'senior officers and managers' bracket grew by a mere 3%,” read the report.

The report said that the unequal gender representation in professional or technical jobs was due to how the market demanded more from women in those occupations to succeed.

It deduced this from the observation that men with secondary schooling or less had greater chances than their female counterparts of becoming professionals.

Joint responsibility at home

The data showed that lack of opportunity, rather than capability, was to blame for the scarce female representation in the workforce, the report's authors said.

“At the end of the day, one of the greatest barriers to women’s equal participation in the economy is the belief that the burden of responsibility for the family lies solely in their hands.

“Until society accepts that men and women have an equal role in the household performing domestic work and care responsibilities, women will find it difficult not only to participate in the labour market, but also to remain actively involved over their lifetime.”

The report noted that women who have taken time out of their careers for family obligations were finding it difficult to return to their work, as they were regarded as “less committed” than colleagues who did not leave.

Moves such as the legalisation of flexi-work under the Employment Act in 1998 to let women "integrate career with household duties" and extended maternity leave to 90 days for the government sector also did not seem to have pushed up the percentage of women in the workforce.

The report said that Putrajaya’s other initiatives to pull more women into the workforce appeared to be composed of ad-hoc and one-off programmes, some of which did little to help break gender stereotypes as they trained women in areas like tailoring, beauty, embroidery or craft.

“Claims that its training programmes and credit facilities (to the tune of millions of ringgit) have reached thousands of women may be true but their actual impact remains uncertain,” read the report.

“If anything, the consistently low female labour force rate would suggest that these efforts have had limited practical impact, or had yet to achieve their intended outcome.”

To resolve the issue, the report recommended that Putrajaya make the formalisation of employment and security of productive employment a long-term agenda.

The government also needed to expand accessible and quality childcare, ensure women workers were remunerated fairly and equally, and reform labour laws and all laws that discriminate women.

The report further recommended that Putrajaya provides appropriate skills development and facilitate education-to-work transitions and continue to support women in the rural and agricultural sectors, as well as those in micro, small and medium enterprises.

The report was written by Tan Sri Datuk Dr Kamal Salih, an adjunct professor of Economics and Development Studies at Universiti Malaya (UM); Dr Lee Hwok Aun, from the UM Department of Development Studies, and Dr Muhammad Khalid of the Khazanah Research Institute.

The report was published for the UNDP and was sponsored by the global development network and the Economic Planning Unit which is under the Prime Minister's Department. – November 27, 2014.

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