KUALA LUMPUR, April 6 – Yatela Zainal Abidin recalled experiencing, early in her career, discrimination over her gender, for wearing a hijab, and for being pregnant.
Now, over 20 years later, she is CEO of Yayasan Sime Darby, the philanthropic arm of conglomerate Sime Darby Bhd.
While she noted that “times have certainly changed”, Yatela said there is still a long way to go.
“It was recently reported that over 900 listed companies on Bursa only have about 17 per cent women representation on their boards and senior management,” she said at an online forum organised last March 30 by Astro Awani titled “30% of Women in Leadership NOW! The Game Plan”.
However, she maintains a positive outlook for the future.
“I personally am confident that the situation will exponentially improve as there is so much more awareness on the subject matter.”
She cited a study from the Institute of Corporate Directors Malaysia that showed companies with at least one-third of women board representation correlated with a 38 per cent higher median return on equity, compared to companies without any female board directors.
Changing Expectations In Gender Roles
Dr Imelda Balchin, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at KPJ Damansara Specialist Hospital, has observed changes in expectations when it comes to gender roles in the family, saying that this is something that should be taken into account when hiring individuals for leadership positions.
“If you want women and men in top positions, then you cannot look at them as individual men or women. You must look at them as people with families, with baggage that come along with them.
“Traditionally, when you appoint a man in a leadership position, what you get is a free woman behind the scenes who is actually managing the chaos of family life.”
Organisations get free manpower as they are not paying for this woman who becomes a personal assistant for the man so he can do his job, she elaborated.
“But if you appoint a woman as a leader, you traditionally expect the woman to do the job and also handle the family chaos. It’s not that women cannot be good leaders, you are actually making them do two jobs.
“But today, we are in a different world. If you appoint a man in a leadership role, he is more likely to have a career-driven wife. Men are also expected to and want to be there for their children.”
Poor Institutional Support Impedes Women’s Potential
Dr Imelda, who has over 585,000 followers on Facebook, said women should not alienate men with personal accusations of sexism, as they need the support of men to achieve their goals.
“We want men to be able to work with women and when we put women in leadership roles they must be able to work with men.”
Instead, it is issues like the lack of institutional support that should be addressed, opined Dr Imelda, whose experience with it changed the course of her career.
As a junior doctor, she excelled in laparoscopic surgery, which was a field dominated by men.
Laparoscopic surgery is a type of operation where a surgeon inserts a laparoscope — a slender tool with a tiny video camera and light on the end — through a small cut in the body to see what’s happening inside through a video monitor, without which the surgeon would have to make a much larger opening.
“I was so good at it that senior doctors who were male bosses actually appointed me to lead a minimal access surgery list on my own because I could do the job.”
However, she had problems with the instruments, which were designed for larger hands.
“They were designed for men. I am someone with tiny hands and tiny fingers; it was a struggle. Every day, I came home with sore arms and sore fingers,” said Dr Imelda, who eventually moved on to another sub-speciality, because the pain of performing the procedure became too much to bear.
“The men around me are not sexist, but the institution has not caught up with provisions to help women rise. The opportunity to do the job means that you’ve got to get instruments that will fit women’s hands.”
Where Are The Programmes For Women With HIV?
The inability to account for the specific needs of women was also an issue encountered by Persatuan Wahadiyah Malaysia founder and chairwoman Norlela Mokhtar, spurring her down the road to activism.
Her non-government organisation works with women living with HIV.
“I remember 10 years back in a seminar I openly asked, where are the programmes for women living with HIV?” she recalled. The answer she got was disappointing and made her angry.
“Because are you waiting for women infected by HIV to be 50 per cent before you do something about it?”
She said it was such issues that drove her to tender her resignation at land development agency Felda and to pursue a career in HIV advocacy, where she now works with the Malaysian Aids Council.
Norlela said she was fortunate to be involved in a training programme conducted by Malaysian AIDS Foundation chairwoman Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman back in 2016.
“Because of my ability to speak English, I was sent overseas to learn about laws and leadership. If such opportunities are available to more women, then the representation of women will be stronger in terms of HIV response.
“When you talk about wanting to do something for women living with HIV, to talk about us, you must include us. I try my very best to bring forward the issues facing women living with HIV in Malaysia.”
Power Imbalance Put Women At A Disadvantage
Biologically, women are more vulnerable to HIV, and this is exacerbated by a culturally sanctioned power imbalance, according to Dr Adeeba, who was also on the panel of the forum.
The International AIDS Society president cited condom negotiation as an example of power imbalance that put a woman’s life at risk before HIV treatment was available.
“In the days when we had nothing but condoms to prevent HIV, whether you’re married to a male person, or worse still if you’re a sex worker, to insist that your male partner wears a condom was an issue.
“Women had to negotiate something that was life-threatening in the days before there was treatment.”
Dr Adeeba, an infectious disease expert from University of Malaya, noted that in countries where gender disparity is greater, men may come forward for treatment while women will not.
“Because the stigma and discrimination on women tend to be greater than that for men, so coming forward for prevention and treatment can also be a big issue,” she said.
Torn Between Family And Career
Dr Adeeba, former dean of the Faculty of Medicine at University of Malaya, said a big problem in Malaysia that prohibits many women from advancing in their career is the lack of child and elderly care.
She observed that while more women may go to medical school, fewer enter specialty training and assume leadership positions.
“Part of that problem is that the need to go for postgraduate training also coincides with the time your biological clock is running out,” maintained Dr Adeeba, who is a member of the World Health Organization Science Council.
“Forget about boards, even to advance in their career, when they are desperate to start a family and nurture that family, there’s that collision at a time when many of us are advancing in our careers.
“Having that support — whether parental, spousal, in-law and governmental support in providing affordable child care — is crucial before you even talk about women at the board level.”
Gender Board Quota The Right Way
Nevertheless, Yatela maintained that the government is on the right path by instituting a requirement that all public listed companies have at least one female board member and senior manager by January 2023.
She cited Norway as an example of a country that overcame resistance to a constitutional requirement for female representation.
“In 2003, the Norwegian government passed a law that required companies to have at least 40 per cent of their board members be women. After a grace period of two years for existing companies, failure to achieve 40 per cent would lead to the company being delisted.
“There was backlash at first, but now the quota law has become a non-issue in Norway,” said Yatela, adding that people should not be afraid of upsetting the apple cart.
“So, we’re concerned about ruffling feathers and we’re concerned about taking that big step. I feel personally that this big step needs to be taken and feathers need to be ruffled before things can happen.”
Dr Adeeba said that women in particular should be bold enough to put themselves forward. “Let’s make our voices heard to demand the institutional support we need.”
“It would be great if that could be a catalyst for women and men who are listening to this show to start demanding at their own workplaces and build the momentum to demand nationally.
“For all the women listening, believe in yourself. Believe you can be there along with all those men, who are often not half as good as you are anyway, and demand for your seat at the table.”