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Malaysia's push for gender equality holds lessons for Asia

Government must lead by example to encourage women into upper echelons

| Malaysia

Malaysia has come a long way in women's socioeconomic advancement, but progress has remained slow in the higher economic and political echelons. The government is pressuring publicly listed companies to fulfill a 30% women quota in board membership.

However, other interventions are needed, to prohibit unfair discrimination and promote diversity, particularly by instituting fair employment laws and replacing an overpoweringly male-dominated Cabinet with a more gender representative one.

Women constitute two-thirds of the student body in Malaysia's public universities. From 2013 to 2016, women's labor participation exceeded 50%, after stubbornly hovering at 45%-48% since the 1980s. This is largely driven by growing numbers of college- and university-educated women, who are more likely to stay in the workforce.

However, as we move up the economic and political hierarchy, gender representation becomes more skewed. Women represent one third of senior management of publicly listed companies, but only one-tenth of board members.

This is unsatisfactory, not least to Prime Minister Najib Razak. Since 2011, when Najib pronounced a target of 30% women in corporate decision-making positions by 2016, his administration has taken an interest in the gender profile of top management, especially board membership.

Malaysia missed that 2016 target, prompting Najib to extend the deadline to 2020, while also upping the ante. In his speech in late July to the Invest Malaysia convention, he threatened to name and shame companies with no women on their boards by 2018.

The original goal was certainly ambitious, but less so than the storied Norwegian experience. The Malaysian government has invoked Norway's legislated requirement of 40% women on publicly listed company boards, which took effect in 2006 and came with the severe penalty of delisting for companies that did not comply within two years. Accordingly, women's representation on boards soared from 10% to 40%. Some companies took the alternative route of going private.

Quotas are contentious anywhere, and Norway's experience has its share of controversies.

Quotas also carry particular baggage in Malaysia, where decades of ethnic quotas may stoke anxieties that such measures promote identity over capability, devalue women's achievements, and breed profiteering and dependency. These are legitimate concerns, but there are grounds to believe that a gender-based quota system, in the particular sphere of management and board membership, can significantly mitigate adverse outcomes.

Responsible leaders

The positions being allocated entail exercise of leadership, decision-making and organizational oversight -- not asset transfers or profiteering opportunities. Furthermore, history suggests that women will not galvanize political pressure to secure permanent special privileges; quota beneficiaries will likely undertake their roles responsibly and proactively. We should also be mindful to be equally critical of men who forsake their fiduciary duties, and not be hasty and prejudiced in evaluating the conduct of women on boards.

More broadly, Malaysia's agenda to promote gender diversity and women's upward mobility should be given room to first establish the underlying rationale for quotas, realize the importance of government leadership, and consider other worthy interventions.

Quotas are warranted where women's under-representation derives from discrimination, exclusion or systemic disadvantage. In the highest economic echelons, women can face steep barriers to entry: from relative inexperience due to lack of opportunity in the past, to exclusion from "the boys club" and male-dominated networks, or downright sexism. Elevating more women into decision-making positions rectifies past inequalities, broadens perspectives and enriches policies, and signals to society what is achievable and desirable.

Malaysia also needs to look beyond quotas and boardrooms to systemic issues and solutions, especially fair employment legislation that prohibits unfair discrimination and provides guidance for pro-diversity efforts, not only regarding gender but also ethnicity, religion, and various forms of identity. For instance, Malaysian companies could be legally cleared to engage in outreach efforts, such as mentioning in job ads that women are encouraged to apply, to declare the intention to diversify their workforce by broadening the pool of women applicants, rather than reserving positions or enforcing quotas.

Government example

Interventions should proceed from principles and rationales -- and be applied across both private and public sectors, in business and in government. The Malaysian government initiated the gender diversity agenda, but the quest flounders at the highest decision-making levels.

Women now make up 32.5% of high-ranking officers in federal government departments and agencies (approximately the top 0.2%), surpassing a 30% quota adopted around 2005. Government self-reporting of this achievement, however, omits the fact that only six out of 42 secretaries-general and directors-general, or 14.2% of the total, are women.

In Najib's cabinet, three out of 35 (8.6%) ministers are women, one of whom reinforces gender roles as head of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, while the other two are in the prime minister's department. The big ticket portfolios are all in men's hands. Among deputy ministers, women comprise six out of 34 (17.6%), with two in the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry.

Malaysia's parliament is 10% female, below the average 24% of upper middle income countries, and regional neighbors the Philippines (30%) and Indonesia (17%), although exceeding Thailand (6%). The problem is bi-partisan, although the federal opposition parties do better in terms of women's representation in internal party leadership. Most of the Cabinet consists of parliamentarians, but there is also the Senate route, at the prime minister's discretion. Two ministers and six deputy ministers are there through senatorial appointment; only one is a woman.

Norway did not just push hard for quotas; government and society conferred women more power and prominence. By the 1980s, women held 40% of Norway's parliamentary seats, and since the mid-2000s, 40% of Cabinet positions. Taiwan, where women comprise 38% of parliamentarians, is among many countries implementing gender quotas in political office. Malaysians have called for more effective and meaningful promotion of women in the legislature, executive and judiciary.

Malaysia's pursuit of gender diversity lacks a clear and firm signal from the highest decision-making body. Many will welcome the call for change, but without leadership by example, the endeavor suffers a credibility gap.

Hwok-Aun Lee is a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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