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Handshakes and Empathy: Personal Experiences as a Woman in Corporate Malaysia

Handshakes and Empathy: Personal Experiences as a Woman in Corporate Malaysia

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As a woman working in the Malaysian corporate sector, I have mixed feelings about anyone claiming that increased education and labour participation of Malaysian women meant equality.

In the short time that I have been working in Malaysia – about 3 years – I have experienced a range of instances of sexism: some would be categorised as ‘micro-aggressions’ (a casual degradation of a marginalised group) while others were so obvious that it shocked me and my colleagues. The latter came in the form of a meeting with some clients where the predominantly male client team would avoid eye contact with my – predominantly female – team. This was unusual on several levels: i) As a Malaysian professional, I am keenly aware of religious practices that discourage physical interaction between unmarried men and women. My team was aware of this and did not initiate handshakes. However, throughout our meeting, our male counterparts would avoid eye-contact with female team members even when they were leading discussions and negotiations

 ii) Instead of eye-contact or acknowledgement of our presence, the client would instead focus his attention and direct his questions to our male colleagues, while female leaders would respond. It became a game of eye-contact ping pong. Both my male and female colleagues left the meeting feeling out of sorts – what just happened? Was it accidental or was it deliberate? Were our male colleagues responsible for speaking up against it and would it have been appropriate to do so? In my discussions with colleagues from different religious and racial backgrounds since this incident, no one has been able to come to a conclusion about what it was about and what would have been an appropriate response.

 

Image from themalaymailonline.com

However, more often than not, my experience with discrimination in corporate Malaysia have come in more subtle ways – in off-hand remarks about the length of a woman’s skirt, penis jokes at corporate dinners, and calling women ‘bossy’ when they are responsible for dispensing instructions or leading a team. These off-hand remarks do not engender the same reactions as explicit expressions of gender bias (think of your misogynistic uncle – or auntie – claiming that a woman’s place is in the kitchen).

Instead, these remarks change the tone and environment in subtle ways – like an ice pick, it chips away at a woman’s level of comfort among her colleagues, making her self-conscious about issues that may not affect her male colleagues. To the men – and women – making these comments, women see you. We hear you. And we remember.

Nonetheless, in my discussions with men and women on this topic, I am convinced that the majority of people do not make those remarks with malicious intent. Regardless of intent, the women listening will remember these remarks because they were so pointed at a particular gender.

I’ve found a good test to understand whether a comment is sexist or not: Think about the last time you heard someone call a woman ‘bossy’. What prompted such a reaction? Was she being authoritative and unyielding? Did she seem to lack empathy? Or did she simply provide instructions for a task?

Now think about how you’d describe a male manager or colleague providing a similar set of instructions in a similar fashion. Would he be considered bossy? Or would he be considered decisive, assertive, and straight-forward?


 

Image from themalaymailonline.com

 

In view of my own experiences, I was curious to understand what other friends and colleagues thought about sexism in the workplace. I asked several young professional women, “Have you ever experienced discrimination due to your gender?” The overwhelming answer was ‘YES’. Some cited instances of explicit sexism:

Jane*, a female tech start-up founder, detailed to me a situation where she was meeting a prospective partner with her co-founder, only to have the partner talk about being hungover from a late night, calling her ideas ‘irrelevant’ and ‘dumb’ before turning to her male co-founder to insist that they adjourn for drinks at the bar to ‘do business’.

Other professional women were more affected by a lack of female leadership within their teams and, by extension, a lack of female role models. They noted that male leaders were able to help direct and drive their careers, but were still – at least for now – unaware of the significant challenges that they would face as women.

Another woman I spoke to, Karen*, said she preferred female managers and supervisors because she felt she was able to connect with them more, while others like Ee Xin from Ipoh wanted more female role models to help drive her career. To these young professional women, female role models and leaders are critical to their development, as seasoned female leaders can help navigate the minefields around juggling motherhood with a career, being  assertive without coming across as aggressive, and not underselling their capabilities.

 

 

Curious about this feedback, I decided to pose a similar question to young professional men: “Do you think women face discrimination and have you observed it happening?”

The responses were interesting. One respondent, Dom*, could not provide any instances of discrimination occurring to his female colleagues, citing the fact that he was in a female-dominated team. Others like Timothy* were aware of implicit and explicit bias his female colleagues faced, but felt awkward about raising the issue within his teams. This unwillingness to raise – or lack of acceptance of – the issue of gender discrimination was consistent across the men and women I spoke to.

This lack of response begs the question: why are we and the people around us reluctant to speak up against sexism?

I have a few theories. First, perhaps we live in a culture where hierarchy rules and speaking out against colleagues – especially older ones – is seen as disrespectful and could result in jeopardising one’s career. Second, my experience of working in Malaysia has revealed Malaysians to be wary of confrontation. Approaching someone for something they said or did is often seen as disrespectful.

Nevertheless, it remains important for those of us experiencing sexism or observing it to be proactive about raising the issue. In my experience, two methods have worked to highlight when someone is saying sexist things or being sexist: stating the situation for what it is, and questioning someone’s words or behaviour.

Stating the situation simply involves calling out sexist behaviour for what it is – when a colleague passes an off-hand comment about women’s bodies, I simply respond with, “I think that is inappropriate. I would like us to focus on the situation at hand.” For me, this has worked by allowing me to highlight that whatever they were saying or doing is inappropriate (and often, sexist), but also to quickly re-focus the discussion onto what we’re really here for – to do our jobs. By doing this, the person I address realises what they just said, is aware that I do not find such behaviour or language appropriate, and that our current interaction is not the time and place to begin an argument. Similarly, questioning someone’s words or behaviour allows me to highlight their words and behaviour and places the onus on them to respond to my question. It involves asking, “Why?” 

“Why do you say that?”

“Do you think that is appropriate? Why?”

“Is that the right word to use? Why?”

Asking questions allows me to highlight their behaviour without confronting them with, “I think you’re being sexist.” It is subtle but assertive, and suited to an environment where confrontation is frowned upon. Thus far, both methods have worked for me. Then again, I have not had the misfortune of working with colleagues who are staunch sexists and I hope I never have to.

However, my methods of coping are far from the only ones available and may not be appropriate for everyone. I’d like to hear from you about how you’ve coped with sexist colleagues or sexist statements. How did you deal with the incident? What did you say? Were you able to prompt a change in behaviour?

In light of these issues, a recent Harvard Business Review article on how differently venture capital firms speak about male and female entrepreneurs is highly relevant. The authors ended on a rather ominous tone – the gender stereotyping and sexism in VC’s “isn’t only damaging for women entrepreneurs; it’s potentially damaging for society as a whole”. It’s a message we should heed as corporate Malaysians as well.

Note:

* Not their real names

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