We sat in a small study room of a low-cost housing apartment, joined by nine other Malaysian women of different races, all of whom lived here as residents. Most of them worked as cleaners and small-scale entrepreneurs to eke out a living for their families.
“We feel we can do better,” one said to the focus group. “It’s hard with the children – we have to make sure they’re taken care of while we’re at work.” The women nodded in unison. It quickly became obvious that many of them faced the same issue: balancing work and family was challenging, and affordable childcare services were hard to come by.
These women are not alone. From the urban poor to the middle-class, the more women and men we talk to, the clearer it becomes that they share similar stories and challenges. In many cases, women are forced to quit their jobs due to a lack of childcare support, high transit costs and lack of trust in available care options.
This is pronounced for poor families where it is an economic necessity for both men and women to work. But due to the lack of subsidized care facilities available where they live, they usually end up working shifts, if employed - sometimes leaving home early or returning late at night, with long commutes on public transport or motorbikes to the workplace. As such, women also report that they choose to stay at home or work informally from home, as the costs of leaving their children, financially and non-financially, outweigh basic wages.
The same goes for middle-class and highly-educated women who also face the double burden of care – children and elderly, with many tending to quit their jobs or preferring flexi- or part-time options.
The question to ask is: are Malaysian women being held back from economic opportunities?
Whilst Malaysia has made great progress in increasing the female labor force participation rate from 46.4% in 2009 to 55.2% in 2018, the country still records one of the lowest rates among East Asian countries. This means that for every 100 women aged 15 to 65 years, 55 of them work.
In 2018, more than 60%of women who did not participate in the labor force cited housework, including child and elderly care, as the main reason for not seeking work. But only less than 4%of men not involved in the labor market gave housework as their main reason Thus, in Malaysia, across all ethnicities, the strong sense of duty of care for children and the elderly is pervasive among women and recognizing this social-cultural value is key to addressing the issue.
Further, equal access to economic opportunities for women still remains a challenge despite the fact that girls perform better than boys in schools, and make up more than 55% of graduates in higher education institutions. Enrolment for women in science and mathematics has also increased, taking up 67% of available spots, and women further represent an encouraging 40% and 34% in ICT and engineering respectively.
In our quest to go beyond the numbers, a new World Bank study delved into the voices of the people to carve out policy directions that promote economic opportunities for women. This requires a comprehensive inter-agency policy approach, and with tight fiscal resources, addressing barriers must include clear prioritization for the urban poor, and better coordination and monitoring. These policy recommendations include:
- Expand the availability, quality and affordability of care services. For children, coverage of care should be expanded to ages 0 to 17 years, rather than the current limited range of 0 to 6 years.
- Strengthen the protection of informal workers and the productivity of workers. Scaling up the government’s matching of voluntary pension contributions and introducing a social pension can help protect informal workers.
- Pursue planned legal reforms to explicitly recognize equal rights for women and men in the workplace. This can also involve advancing new bills such as the Gender Equality Act, in line with other developing and developed countries.
- Improve support for working parents, in line with international legal norms. Mandating paid paternity leave and increasing the maternity leave to 98 days, in line with international standards is key to enabling fathers to be more hands-on in parenting.
- Address gender norms and attitudes through education and awareness in schools and among the wider population. Societal attitudes towards shared parenting and care do change over time, which education and media can help develop.
Closing the gap between men’s and women’s economic opportunities could increase income per capita by 26.2%, implying an average annual income gain of RM9,400 (US$2247) for each Malaysian. Breaking barriers for women in Malaysia not only makes business and social sense, its impacts have the potential to go beyond the individual and family level to contribute to the nation’s development goals. As Malaysia continues on its path towards becoming a high-income and developed nation, ensuring that women have equal access to economic opportunities is what the country will need for more inclusive growth.