On the eve of the Campus’ celebration of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, we reviewed the key statistics and data on the status of gender equity in Malaysia. Here's what we found:
- Australia's female labour force participation rate stood at 62.2% (versus 55% in Malaysia);
- Unemployment rate of females in Australia was 4.9%, where males’ unemployment rate was 5.1% in 2021 (versus unemployment rate of females in Malaysia was 4.8% for female and 4.5% for males) ;
- Interestingly, the educational attainment of women is higher than men in both countries, according to the latest Gender Gap Report released by World Economic Forum.
Assuming a better educational attainment leads to higher employability, our stats did not tell us so. Given the higher education attainment among women compared to men, it does not make sense that the female labour force participation rate was lower. What is more puzzling is Malaysia was ranked lower in female labour force participation than other less developed Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand (66.8%) and Vietnam (68.1%). This remains a key unresolved gender issue that stagnates our economic development.
When we tried to dig deeper through the statistical reports, there was no further explanation on the stories behind the numbers and figures. Obviously, there is a missing piece in the puzzle, and it leads to our key question(s) here - What prevents and excludes women from seeking a job? How could countries like Malaysia move on from such a stagnated situation to encourage more female workers to join the workforce?
Why do Women Stay Out of The Workforce?
"I suppose you have a good work ethic and you want to do the best that you can do and it was really difficult to draw the line between being mommy and being at home, but also having a work identity."
The statement was quoted from a study  published in 2020, which observes the expectation where female household members are expected to be responsible for childcare. This is due to gender stereotyping of women in their roles as they were always expected to (or forced to) choose between their family and careers, where they are traditionally being viewed as the caretakers of the family. Data have shown that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary reasons for Malaysian women to stay out of the labour force were housework and family responsibilities.
Discover: Motherhood Penalty in The Workplace
Some might argue flexible working arrangements (work from home) experimented during the lockdown would increase the female labour participate rate. This does not appear to be the case. If flexible work arrangements do not solve the problem of low female labour participation, what other arrangements or policies could?
Current research indicates  , unfortunately, that women faced more psychological distress compared to men while working from home. A report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) showed that women who were between 35-44 years of age were twice as likely as men to face difficulty in caregiving. Furthermore, psychological distress associated with caretaking responsibilities along with their full time career would eventually discourage women from returning to work. They just could not manage two roles - employee and caregiver.
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A win-win situation here could be achieved through an equal distribution of caretaking responsibilities among partners. However, this becomes challenging when both partners are employed (and the child-care responsibilities will usually be dedicated to the older female members of the household).
"No one would take care of my children if I left for work…"
Taking Kuala Lumpur (the capital city of Malaysia) as an example, the average cost of private childcare alone for children aged from 37-48 months is approximately RM750 (approximately $232 AUD) per month in 2019. This could be a burden for the bottom 40% single-income group as almost 50% of their income would go to childcare. Note that the minimum wage is only RM1,500 (approx. $484.89 AUD) per month in Malaysia. Although public childcare services in Malaysia were highly subsidised, given the limited number of public childcare facilities available, some parents might end up sending their children to private childcare institutions.
Back in 2016, a member of the Ramping Up Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) task force had drawn concern to the fact that there were not enough registered childcare centres in semi-rural and rural areas . This issue remained unresolved until 2018, when Datuk Seri Wan Azizah called for urgent attention to increase childcare centres in Malaysia. Recall on the theory of supply and demand, some readers would know that with a shortage in the supply of childcare centres, the cost of childcare would get higher. This rise in price further pushes the bottom 40% family out of the buyer market of private childcare.
Other than the accessibility of childcare services, parents have concerns about childcare quality. Although Malaysia has regulations on ensuring the safety and quality of childcare centres, more has to be done to ensure the eligibility and the capability of the caretakers of our young children. It is saddening to know that a total of 86 child abuse reports involved childcare providers in Malaysia during 2019. This statistic further exposes the cracks in our regulatory system as some caregivers do not possess good knowledge and practice in caregiving. This has been proven in a 2017 study, where only 38.7% of caregivers demonstrated sufficient knowledge in caretaking .
What's Next for Policymakers?
Policymakers, as key decision makers, should recognise the obstacles and challenges when drafting gender sensitive policies, so as to benefit everyone. While the Malaysian government has introduced some good policies (e.g: more flexible work arrangements and longer maternity leave for women), we believe that we should take a step back to at least understand and appreciate the deftness of working moms who try to keep everything on track in their life at home and at work.
It is clear that household responsibilities and the lack of childcare services is a major concern to parents and this has to be addressed concurrently. This means if we want to encourage more women to join the labour force, providing affordable and quality childcare could be the remedy for low female labour participation. Improving the childcare system could bring more benefits than costs as it offers a sigh of relief for working mothers, as well as supporting post-pandemic recovery through improved productivity. Other than setting up more childcare centres in semi-rural and rural areas.
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As a part of women’s empowerment, it is vital to create a friendlier and more supportive environment that allows women to get through the difficulties posed by their gender roles. If we truly value the female members of our society, then our public policy must change.
This article is co-authored with my colleague, Framjee Hathy, PhD student from the Department of Economics; and Associate Professor Dr Jane Terpstra-Tong, Deputy Head of School (Education), Monash Business School.
This article was first published on Morgan Loh's Linkedin.
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