A recent BFM podcast episode, “The New Brain Drain,” discussed the relatively low rate of women’s participation in the Malaysian workforce, focusing specifically on the challenges faced by mothers working outside the home. The government is showing an interest in women’s contribution to the national economy: Prime Minister Najib Razak recently commented that women’s participation in the workforce should be improved to aid growth.
However, the discussion in the episode is underscored by several problematic assumptions and generalisations about gender roles in parenting, as well as other work equity issues, that need to be corrected. Foundational inequities must be addressed with the aim of empowering women and challenging societal views of gender norms; otherwise, discussions on revamping the workforce and on measuring productivity and contributions by women would only lead to cosmetic changes.
The podcast began by highlighting the low level of women in the workforce – 46 per cent compared to 70 per cent in Thailand and 60 per cent in Singapore– before noting that one challenge for several women in the workforce was that they also had to juggle roles as mothers or carers. It also noted the decreasing number of women in higher job positions, and discussed some methods to increase the number of women in the professional workforce. Co-sponsored by the Economic Transformation Program, the podcast highlighted flexible working arrangements as a solution, as advocated by TalentCorp Malaysia under its Talent Wanita programme.
Johan Merican, TalentCorp’s CEO, provocatively described the exodus of women from the white-collar workforce to stay at home to care for the family in terms of a “brain drain.” Conventionally, “brain drain” is used to describe the phenomenon of highly trained workers leaving their home countries (often in so-called developing economies) to seek employment opportunities elsewhere (“developed” countries) that provide not just higher earnings, but greater potential for professional growth. The growing numbers of Malaysians leaving the country or remaining abroad to work upon finishing their studies is widely viewed as an obstacle to the nation’s goal of achieving a “high-status income” economy, an issue TalentCorp was founded precisely to address. As such, Merican’s framing of the low retention rates of women in the white-collar workforce suggests that TalentCorp is taking the issue of women’s participation in the professional workforce seriously.
At first glance, it appears that TalentCorp, as indicated by its efforts to increase women retention rates in the workforce, has a progressive stance on gender equality. However, a closer look at its initiatives, primarily on creating flexible work arrangements targeted at women, suggests otherwise. While such arrangements may benefit TalentCorp and other companies that implement them, they do not necessarily benefit women in the same way because the double burden of working and caring for the family remains on women. In other words, while it seem as if the reason for creating flexibility is to ensure that women might have time for work and family, the underlying implication is that women are still expected to fulfil double responsibilities, now both possibly from the home, while no mention is made of the role of men in the household. Similarly, while the government’s introduction of a 90-day maternity leave policy is welcome, it nonetheless excludes fathers’ or partners’ parenting role. Why not paternity/partner leave, too?
Entrenched ideas about parenting and gender roles have direct and real implications on who, in a heterosexual partnered family unit, will take long periods of time-out from full-time work; the responsibility, unfairly, almost always falls on women. The podcast unquestioningly adopts this view, focusing on mothering rather than parenting, omitting the often overlooked role of fathers. Interviews with women mentioned the difficulty of time management in balancing work and home responsibilities, as well as the lack of good childcare support options, as reasons for “opting out.” However, there was little discussion on how societal views of gender norms and work equity issues affected their decisions to stay at home. Did the women have a higher salary than their husbands, or is it the reverse? What does the “support” of the husband consist of: working harder and / or just giving his blessing? Does he help out with the household chores?
Moreover, the idea that women leaving the workforce to raise families is equivalent to a “brain drain” and not good for national “economic growth” is problematic because it assumes that the unpaid work of domestic management and childcare has no economic value; it also does not mean that mothers are not properly utilizing their skills. In 2005, UNICEF estimated about 75 per cent of women, as opposed to 24 per cent of men, are involved in “care” work that are unpaid; if we were to measure that monetarily, that would be equivalent to a loss of RM76 billion, or 12 per cent of Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP). This persistence of views that allow for unpaid work to not have economic value borrow on an understanding of motherhood as being exclusive with womanhood and families. This in turn perpetuates long-held beliefs about gender roles, and also contributes to attempts to depict ideal womanhood. There must be more emphasis on shared parenting duties to help improve workforce participation rates and career opportunities for women.
Indeed, while flexible work arrangements benefit the companies, the question remains: will they equally benefit working mothers? What are the effects of flexible work arrangements on women’s careers in the long term? For example, are flexible workers viewed in the same way as their full-time colleagues or would they be considered merely as part-timers? Is there job security in flexible work arrangements? Moreover, although presented as a convenience, flexible work arrangements also require setting up home offices. Who is responsible for these overhead expenses? And, since work and home spaces are no longer separate in such arrangements, how do flexible workers draw boundaries on how much time is spent at work? Telecommunication technologies such as email and mobile phones have had the notorious effect of prolonging the work day, seeing as the worker is expected to be on call or reachable at all times even when outside the office. Given that flexible work is highly reliant on such technologies, do such arrangements necessarily deliver the work-life balance they promise?
The podcast also pointed out that women mainly occupy entry-level positions as opposed to middle-management and board positions. This issue cannot be seen as separate from women’s labour participation; for instance, although the podcast noted that Singapore has a higher female workforce participation rate, it didn’t mention that the rates of women in the boardroom there are similar to here. Discussing participation rates alone is problematic; there should also be a discussion of what jobs women have (this podcast did touch on that) to properly give it context. The underlying issue, then, is not that there are not enough capable women, but that the way companies are structured often prevent women from climbing up the career ladder. Within this context, quotas become an urgent form of action: they have been implemented in many companies and for many government boards too, and work well in that they acknowledge structural inequalities and help lay the ground for definitive mechanisms to tackle them.
Finally, the episode appeared to concentrate on a specific working class of women characterized as using their “brains” in very specific job functions (as high-earning “cognitariats”). The women interviewed, for instance, appear to be partnered. Women without partners or in lower-paid work have children too and probably cannot afford childcare. How do they do it? If the professional working woman is forced to choose between staying at home or working, the working class woman, or even a single mother, usually does not get to choose. If the latter does not work, her children cannot eat. Also excluded from the picture are cases of foreign (mostly female) domestic workers having to leave children to work abroad–nobody calls that a “brain drain,” pointing to how bourgeois the term is–often to support other families and households.
Although we applaud the attention to a consistent and unabating problem, the conversation on addressing women’s challenges in the workplace should not only concern a professional class of women workers. The reasoning behind the policies implemented need to account for the gendered and class politics involved in the workforce. Furthermore, it is in the best interests of Malaysian women that policies, whether implemented by the government or private sector, take into consideration the demographics, labor, and cultural conditions of all women. The need for greater equity for all regardless of gender in Malaysia should not play second fiddle to an uncritical drive towards a “high-income” society without careful consideration of the consequences.