Women in the workplace till this day continue to face a battle for equal pay, treatment and representation.

One of the top challenges faced by women today is the gender pay gap. This means that a woman doing the same job as her male colleague is getting less pay.

According to the 2018 Salaries & Wages Survey Report launched by the Statistics Department (DOSM), the average male employee had a median salary of RM2,342 per month, RM115 higher than a woman (RM2,227).

women in leadership roles
women in leadership roles

fighting gender inequality in the workplace

Besides the gender pay gap, there’s also a lack of representation of women in senior positions.

A global study by Catalyst showed that women held only 29% of senior management roles in 2019. Female board representation is low in Asia, with females making only 2.6% of the board seats in South Korea and 15.2% in Singapore.

 A research by the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group examined the causes behind the low female board representation in Asia. It noted that in the Asian culture, women may choose to leave the workforce, as they are typically expected to take care of children and family.

The study also showed that women struggle with the stereotype that they are less capable leaders when compared to men. For example, female leaders are seen to be more maternal and empathetic, which are considered to be less suitable for senior-level positions. Board members are also often perceived to be aggressive and assertive, traits that are commonly associated with men.

gender inequality more prevalent in asia

Also, in Asia, the selection process relies heavily on the “old-boys’ network”, which leads to more men in leadership positions than women.

Even though we already know the benefits of having an equally-represented boardroom, many companies are not seen to be acting fast enough. A report by McMaster University that surveyed 600 board members showed that women made fairer decisions than men and had more initiative when it came to dealing with challenges. Ximena Hartsock, president of Phone2Action, a digital advocacy company, points out that "female board members also serve as role models for younger women, opening the door for their leadership and advancement — including into the boardroom."

Furthermore, working mothers face the motherhood penalty wage gap - where people assumed they would be less committed to their jobs because of the distractions of motherhood. As a result of this bias, mums may likely receive fewer job responsibilities or promotion opportunities. What’s worrying is that this discrimination comes from both men and women. Assistant Professor Aliya Hamid Rao of the Singapore Management University pointed out, "Some research has shown that the wage gap between mothers and comparable non-mothers is actually higher than the gender wage gap."

barriers to female leadership
barriers to female leadership

3 reasons for lack of women leaders

1. legacy

Traditionally, women assumed the role of a homemaker and men took on the responsibility of the breadwinner. These days, many women are still expected to take on this same role at home despite the huge progress we have made in having more females in the workforce. The burden of having a job while still juggling the responsibilities of caregiving and housekeeping puts a lot of pressure on women. And it is this added burden that explains why women choose to leave the workforce. In Singapore, 83.4% of married men were employed in 2017, while only 63.3% of married women were working.

2. uneven representation in talent pipeline

Since female workforce participation is low, the gender ratio in the workplace is already tilted. A study by the World Bank showed that females made up 42% of the workforce in 2019.

This means that companies would have fewer female employees to choose from when considering eligible employees for senior positions. For example, if a director has to shortlist three people to consider for a promotion, there is a higher chance that at least two of them would be men.

3. gender bias

Senior executives often have “Boys Clubs” where they gather for lunches or a game of sport. Sometimes, business-related discussions take place during these social activities. Unfortunately, this form of networking usually excludes women. Some executives have also reportedly refused to shift a meeting to accommodate the schedule of a working mum who may have to take time off to pick up her kids from school.

As a result, women may still find themselves not getting sufficient face time with their colleagues or lacking the respect from their counterparts. This culture of exclusion would also discourage women from pursuing powerful positions in the company.

overcoming gender bias

Despite the bias against working mothers, there are female senior executives who are inspiring role models women can look up to, as they have successfully managed to excel both at home as a mum, and at work.

For example, high profile executive mothers include Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox and current CEO of VEON, Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo. Alexa von Tobel, managing partner of venture capital fund Inspired Capital, was featured on the cover of Forbes magazine when she was pregnant with her first child.

initiatives to improve gender diversity
initiatives to improve gender diversity

1. equal hiring practices

Some companies practice blind recruitment, where recruiters and HR team remove the name and gender from the CV before presenting it to the hiring manager. Organisations like Deloitte, HSBC, Clifford Chance and Compose Inc follow this practice. Deloitte’s UK talent head stated “the bias is actually unconscious, so we really need to go further back in the process to the sifting phase".

2. proactive pay and equality audit

Some countries like the UK, Australia, Belgium and Austria have required companies to report gender pay gaps. Iceland was the first country to legislate an “Equal Pay Standard”, where employers are audited for equal pay. France has a gender equality reporting scheme which includes an “equal pay index” and employers who fail to meet the compliance threshold have three years to rectify the problem or face penalties.

In 2019, Citibank became the first bank to publicly release the results of a pay equity review of both women to men. Figures released by Citibank Singapore showed that remuneration for women who were promoted to senior positions did not match those of men, so the bank proactively adjusted the pay of women to narrow the wage gaps.

3. focus on personality and leadership skills

When it comes down to choosing senior executives, gender should not be a factor of consideration. There is also no valid reason for employers to assume that the women will be distracted just because they have children.

Instead, factors to consider during executive appointment should be based on the individual’s abilities and past work performance. What type of technical skills do they have that are transferable and relevant to their new role? Are they good at managing conflict? Have they had successes with improving productivity and performance with a smaller budget?

Singapore Human Resources Institute president Low Peck Kem said pay should be determined by the job and its scope, and the skills and capabilities of the candidate, rather than gender. "By pricing the job fairly, the company stands to gain from attracting and retaining the right talent, regardless of gender," she said.

equality is a win for everyone

Of all the fires that you are putting out at work, gender discrimination at the workplace is a battle worth fighting.

All employers have a part to play in removing gender bias from their workplace, and they can start by introducing initiatives like pay audits and equal hiring practices. This will allow more women to rise to senior positions and offer diverse perspectives which will be critical in driving growth and performance in organisations.

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