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Gender Roles

The Other ‘C’ Word

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“Makeup doesn’t actually mean anything – it’s simply makeup. It’s about… what makes me happy when I look in the mirror… it’s about the face I choose to show the world, and what I choose to say,” she explains in this promotional video for the makeup brand: [https://vimeo.com/187957816]

  

Last October, No.7, a cosmetics brand of UK pharmacy chain Boots, sent waves through the feminist world with the introduction of its unlikely new brand ambassador—the acclaimed writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her appointment was especially noteworthy as it came right on the heels of Alicia Keys’ public decision to stop wearing make-up. It seemed a little counterintuitive for a renowned feminist like Adichie to endorse make-up so fervently, and so, more than helping No.7 put more lipstick on people’s lips, Adichie’s new position has also revived the debate on the relevance of make-up in the feminist movement, inspiring media outlets to publish articles with headlines like “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – the feminist who sells make-up” and “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Proves Feminist Can Rock Make-Up, Too”.

While Keys’ take on make-up might seem like the more obvious feminist stance, Adichie is convinced that her advocacy and love for make-up is no less feminist than Keys’ rejection of it. According to Adichie, both she and Keys are actually acting on the same (feminist) instinct—being the version of themselves that makes them feel real. While this means a rejection of cosmetics for Keys, it means the opposite for Adichie. The writer concludes almost every interview on her love for cosmetics by saying that, at the end of the day, it is up to a woman to decide if make-up works for her or not. All in all, she seems to argue, all that matters is a woman’s personal Choice, and make-up is in no way anti-feminist as long as this Choice is upheld.

 

Is Keys’ stance against makeup a stronger representation of her feminism than Adichie’s decision to embrace it?

 

This use of Choice as a feminist justification for decisions that might otherwise be considered anti-feminist, like the wearing of make-up, high heels, or the hijab, is becoming increasingly common in mainstream feminist discourse. Undoubtedly, respecting women’s personal choices is important, but it is equally important, if not more, to critically examine these Choices and the desires that inform them.

NO ONE is immune to making anti-feminist Choices, including women and/or feminists. Championing Choice above all else makes it easier for all of us to escape the need for deeper self-reflection and consequently runs the risk of eclipsing the bigger struggle for the equality of the genders. It is perhaps time we turned down the volume of the overwhelming rallying cry that is “Choice!”, and took a step back to consider how we can make better feminist Choices in order to advance the movement more meaningfully.

Many topics come to mind when talking about Choice: make-up, body hair (or the lack thereof), the hijab, high heels, the list goes on, but the topic of choice here will be make-up, as space does not permit for more.

Make-up or cosmetics, by definition, are products used (predominantly by women) to beautify appearances, and women have been applying cosmetics on their skin long before Cleopatra sported the first recorded cat eye in history. Living in an age where advertisers and the media are constantly feeding us happiness-sapping messages served with a dash of body-shaming, putting on make-up has become the quickest, least invasive way to get a boost in self-esteem.

Indeed, it feels good to look good, and some even say that it helps women earn more. So what’s wrong with wanting to feel good about how you look? It makes you more confident, more positive, a better worker, a better friend… it’s all good, right? Isn’t that what make-up is all about, empowering women by providing them with a quick boost of feel-good vibes? Well, yes and no.

 

Is makeup “simply makeup”, as Adichie suggests?

 

Yes, of course there is nothing wrong with doing something that makes you feel good, and it is completely up to anyone to do whatever they want with their bodies, regardless of how that might make others feel. But make-up is so much more than that. For starters, it is a booming multi BILLION-dollar global industry that was valued at “460 billion USD in 2014 and is estimated to reach 675 billion USD by 2020 growing at a rate of 6.4%.” The industry thus outpaces the estimated growth of the global economy by almost two and a half times, and with the average modern woman spending almost 450,000 USD on beauty products in her lifetime, the industry is not showing any signs of slowing down even as the world economy struggles to maintain its current growth. What magical engine spurs this industry forwards? None other than the industries that trade in images and have a track record of the sexual objectification and exploitation of women: advertising and media.

Countless studies published over the past few decades have exposed the detrimental physical and psychological effects that the ideals of beauty disseminated by the beauty and advertising industry have on women all over the world. This is no secret, and rising incidents of eating disorders among young girls are becoming a major concern in many countries. More than just messing with women’s body image (intersectional feminists take note), these industries perpetuate racist, classist, and ageist ideals by concertedly sending out the subliminal message that women need to look white, young, and spend lots of money in order to look good.

No.7 really hit the jackpot when Adichie agreed to be their new face, because now, with a highly influential, non-white feminist known for her incisive critique of sexism, racism, and colonialism endorsing their brand, there’s no way they can be faulted for any of the abovementioned crimes, right? In her interviews, Adichie also reveals that other than the tantalizing prospect of getting lots of free make-up, she got on board with No.7 mainly because she believes that “feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive,” and furthermore, that “it is misogynistic to suggest that they are.”

But isn’t the entire cosmetics industry a misogynistic enterprise out to milk women of their self-esteem and money in a world where we have yet to be paid as much as our male counterparts? Some might argue that looking well-groomed helps women fatten their pay checks and that this in turn contributes to the closing of the wage gap, but is it not a sick twisted world we live in where women have to buy into an industry that hurts them in order to earn a little more?

Are not feminists and feminism here to challenge all of this, instead of telling women simply that their right to feel beautiful should not be challenged?

Image via xojane.com [http://www.xojane.com/beauty/makeup/what-is-feminist-makeupping]

 

Adichie’s comment on feminism and femininity not being mutually exclusive has resonated widely with women, including myself (and being the writer that she is, it is highly quotable too). It is a poignant and liberating statement, but before embracing it wholeheartedly, we should also ask ourselves this: what has makeup (alongside shaving, high heels, and uncomfortably tight clothing) to do with femininity to begin with? Why do high heels, footwear that ironically compromises one’s mobility, express femininity? And why is most female/feminine clothing designed to be so much more uncomfortable and impractical compared to male/masculine clothing?

If we were to take a closer look at the conventional ‘expressions of femininity,’ we will realise that most of it, like the wearing of makeup, uncomfortable clothing, ridiculous footwear, and the like, actually physically inconvenience and, if I may say, oppress women. Yet, many, if not most, self-proclaimed feminists I know wear makeup, with some even wearing more of it the more they proclaim their feminism, saying that makeup empowers them.

But really, what does empowerment mean, if you can’t dig deep enough to look your own insecurities in the face and battle them into the ground until they no longer affect you instead of covering up your face to mollify them for the time being. Also, why is it that femininity and conventionally-defined beauty are almost synonymous? Yes, it is every woman’s right to be beautiful, but why must we want to be beautiful?

Feminism has told us that it is high time women subverted the notion that our value lies in our appearances, and that we need to teach women and girls that being pretty is not a prerequisite to being valued. There’s this quote I love: “If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business.”

Knowing how toxic the concept of conventional feminine beauty has become, can my Choice to wear make-up still be a feminist Choice? Can it simply be artistic self-expression when it is predominantly used as a means for women to beautify themselves and get closer to the ideal of beauty shaped by insidious images? If it were truly for artistic expression, why aren’t there more people walking about with phoenixes (whatever they may look like; go figure) drawn over their faces? And most importantly, why aren’t there an equal number of people of all genders wearing make-up? Does feminism not urge us to question and challenge such discrepancies?

 

Image via The Guardian

 

To complicate the question of Choice a little more and move beyond cosmetic issues, we could perhaps also ask: whose Choice, exactly?

A grabby-handed man’s choice? That’s a clear ‘No’. A straight, cis-gender, corporate woman’s choice? That’s a clear ‘Yes’ for many. A transwoman’s choice? I think a good number of ‘real women’ might have their doubts (unfortunately).

How do we define this Choice, then?

Some straight, cis-gender women have advocated for appalling policies that restrict women’s access to healthcare, but should we respect their Choice and not speak out against their advocacy simply because they are women? It is undoubtedly of utmost necessity that the feminist movement opens its arms to as many people—especially women—as possible, but in our effort to be inclusive, we must also be discerning. We can’t really believe that women are immune to making anti-feminist choices simply because they are women?

To me, feminism is NOT about Choice + full stop. It is also about making conscious choices that do not aggravate the existing sex- and gender-based discrimination against those who identify as women.

Feminism has been and still is ‘a movement for social, political, and economic equality of women and men,’ and we must strive to keep that in mind before it turns into a movement that fights for women’s Choices first and only.

As mentioned above, I know many feminists who love wearing makeup, and I do not have a problem with that per se, but I do feel a little disappointed knowing that someone who embraces feminism is further perpetuating the societal perception that a woman’s worth lies in her appearance. I personally hate wearing makeup, and that is my Choice, but am I really free to make that choice when my boss implies that it’ll be easier to seal deals with clients if I wore makeup, left my hair long, and wore more dresses and high heels, like my other female colleagues? In a society where some women are forced to cover up by virtue of their gender, would not another woman’s Choice to wear the hijab make it harder for the former to live out her own?

Here, we must again ask ourselves some difficult questions: whose Choice is prioritised more in the above cases, and why? The woman whose Choice so happens to coincide with society’s expectations of her, or the woman who feels constricted by gender roles and societal expectations?

 

Image via Wonderfeminists [https://wonderfeminists.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/i-need-feminism-because/]

 

When Adichie, an empowered, educated, influential woman, decided to become the ambassador of a cosmetics brand, did she not consider what her support of the beauty industry would mean to impressionable young women and girls? As a young woman, I would love to be able to choose to not have my senses assaulted by images that tell me I need to wear make-up to be beautiful and valued, but do I have an option, really?

It would be apt to conclude with a few words a fellow feminist and valued friend, Geetha Anbalagan, has shared with me:

“Looking within is tough work, but it’s often the most important aspect in this fight for equality.

Feminism, as with anything else that requires any critical thinking, will naturally lead us back to the questioning of our personal choices. We’re all capable and should be capable of making choices, even when they hurt us—that’s a right we all get—but when we stop questioning these choices, well then, we have a problem, whether with regard to feminism or not.

If people who embrace feminism think that they’re being alienated because their choices are being questioned, then they need to ask themselves why they are not okay with being questioned. Everything we do, everything we say, and every choice we make in life should be questioned, if not by ourselves then by others. Because that’s the difficult part in life: asking ourselves why we do what we do and what will happen if we changed that. If we’re shaken every time our choices are questioned, then that says something about the choices we make.”

The critical questioning of women’s choices should not be misconstrued as elitist shaming. We have one common goal—dismantling the patriarchy, and it is our duty to keep ourselves and others in check to make sure that we are moving forwards instead of backwards. No one is trying to push women away from this fight, but we must all take steps to ensure that the fight is strong and from all fronts. Feminism has brought us a long way from where we were a century ago—many things have changed for the better since—and I certainly hope that the obsession with Choice will not push us in the opposite direction.

 


References:

  1.  Feminist writer Chimamanda Adichie is now the face of a drugstore makeup brand. https://qz.com/813708/nigerian-writer-chimamanda-adichie-is-now-the-face-of-british-drugstore-beauty-brand-boots-no7/
  2.  Alicia Keys: Time to Uncover. http://www.lennyletter.com/style/a410/alicia-keys-time-to-uncover/
  3.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – the feminist who sells make-up. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-37676472
  4.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Proves Feminist Can Rock Make-Up, Too. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-make-up_us_58135b5de4b0390e69cf7b87
  5.  Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie fronts beauty campaign with an empowering messagehttp://mashable.com/2016/10/20/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-makeup/#ThGPD1lgBmqR
  6.  How a Little Lipstick Could Add Thousands to Your Paycheckhttp://fortune.com/2016/05/19/makeup-more-money/
  7.  Research and Markets: Global Cosmetics Market 2015-2020: Market was $460 Billion in 2014 and is Estimated to Reach $675 Billion by 2020. http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150727005524/en/Research-Markets-Global-Cosmetics-Market-2015-2020-Market
  8.  Global GDP growth in 2015 was 2.63%: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG
  9. Forecasted growth of the global economy until 2020 is just below 3%: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/25823/9781464810169.pdf
  10.  “The Beauty Breakdown.” https://stephns.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/thebeautybreakdown-newsweek.jpg 
  11. SUBDUED DEMAND, DIMINISHED PROSPECTS. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2016/update/01/
  12.  10 Ways the Beauty Industry Tells You Being Beautiful Means Being White. http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/01/when-beauty-equals-white/
  13.  The Cosmetics Racket: Why the Beauty Industry Can Get Away with Charging a Fortune for Makeup. http://www.alternet.org/story/148140/the_cosmetics_racket%3A_why_the_beauty_industry_can_get_away_with_charging_a_fortune_for_makeup
  14.  “Viral video: Why women pants have good-for-nothing pockets?” http://english.fashion101.in/news/FAS-FEV-women-pants-with-no-pockets-fashion-india-5482706.html
  15.  I can’t remember how many times I’ve watched this and it still gives me goosebumps: “Dustin Hoffman on TOOTSIE and his character Dorothy Michaels.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPAat-T1uhE
  16.  Women’s Health: Yet Another Issue Sarah Palin is Out of Touch On. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cecile-richards/add-womens-health-to-the_b_131186.html

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

Young Women: Contesting Patriarchy in the City

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In every era, feminism has penetrated into the hearts and minds of women in their struggle to attain gender equality.

With intersectionality becoming the anchor to today’s feminists, more women of different backgrounds, classes and identities seek to diminish the influence of patriarchy in their own personal contexts, through their individual strengths.

Yet, in our daily lives as young women living in the city, the struggle against patriarchy can be very subtle, structured and real. It can come from the conditioning of our own upbringing, our workplace environment, and the constant bombardment of media that normalises gender stereotypes.

The impact of this social system is felt even more deeply by young women living in economically and politically disadvantaged environments, such as young women from the urban poor, refugees and minorities. The conversation on dismantling patriarchy and achieving gender equality in this country is still very much centred around activists and the NGO circles, while the wider society are not moved from the male-dominated status quo.

As Simone De Beauvoir put it, “One is not born but, rather, becomes a woman”. Unfortunately, the passage of becoming a woman is, for the majority of our young girls, mired in the daily pressure of having to live their lives according to the norms and expectations of society.

In capturing the current dynamic of young women in Kuala Lumpur contesting the cultural and structural norms of patriarchy, I spoke to four women from different backgrounds on their own personal struggles and the way forward towards equality.


 

Ivy

 

Image from http://ppunlimited.blogspot.my/2012/01/

 

1) Can you describe your identity?

I come from a small, middle class Chinese family. Although our family is not rich, my parents took great care to afford us the best education to the best of their ability – that means high expectations on academic results, and a series of planned extra-curricular activities: piano lessons, dance classes, swimming lessons, arts workshops – I’ve done it all!

2) What does being a woman mean to you?

Growing up, I have always been told to pursue excellence and be successful in life. I am lucky in the sense that I was not subject to gender stereotypes as much as the other girls in my social circles – perhaps it was because I was the eldest in the family and I do not have any brothers. Being a woman to me means being able to pursue my life goals freely; to be loved and valued as a human being as much as the other sex.

3) What are your most common experiences as a woman – be it at home/at work/at school/in public? 

I have come across many smart, capable women at work and in life. These women are resilient and they can be assertive when they want to be. Unfortunately, a lot of outdated stereotypes about women still exist – unmarried women are said to be bitter and jealous, stern female bosses are typecast as ‘bitches’ and so on. Sometimes, these stereotypes are even perpetuated by women themselves, which is unfortunate.

4) How has living in a male-dominated/patriarchal society shaped you and the women around you?

As I approach 30, I am starting to feel the pressure of ‘being a woman’, with many friends and family constantly reminding me of my ‘biological clock’. I think this is a fact of life that we can neither change nor ignore, but society can be more supportive in helping women make their own choices about childbearing, ensuring a better quality of life for women (which helps in prolonging fertility) and creating more mother-friendly job environments.

Looking back, I think of the lives of many women like my own mother and grandmothers, who have sacrificed so much of their youth for the family and I wonder how their lives would have been different if they had opportunities equal to the boys of their time. Yet, it is these women who have made possible a better life for me as a woman today.

5) How can we can address this?

We need to acknowledge that all women are different and should be allowed various forms of expression, just as no human are the same. At the same time, there needs to be a recognition that women face a gender-specific set of challenges and vulnerability. I think societal values and policy reinforce each other and until the mindset is changed, women will continue to be boxed into gender roles.


 

Aysha

 

 

1) Can you describe your identity? 

I am a woman with ambitions; a mother who hopes to raise a conscious and independent daughter; a person who values the relations in her life; and a truth seeker who wants to make an impact by giving back to the universe. My identity is a sum total of my female existence, my choices, my values, my aspirations and my human connections.

2) What does being a woman mean to you?

It means being the gender that has the privilege to create life and the sensitivity to enrich life for myself and others around me.

3) What are your most common experiences as a woman – be it at home/at work/at school/in public?

I was raised by a strong mother and a supportive father so, generally, my experiences as a woman have been positive. However, once I became a mother, I realised and faced the challenges women face their in personal and professional lives. The challenge of work-life choices, the issues of redefining my personal identity and the struggles of a career break made me realise that women have a lot more to balance, risk, and comprise than men.

The society (and ourselves) see women as nurturers and the caregivers. This social conditioning and unconscious bias affects the way we women think, act and feel. My journey of a career re-launch made me aware of this conditioning and hidden stereotypical behaviours.

4) How has living in a male-dominated/patriarchal society shaped you and the women around you?

Despite being raised as a strong, independent woman, I was exposed to the subtle social conditioning that women are primarily homemakers, which led to me leave my job to follow my husband as an expat wife. Despite being a strong and successful career woman, I couldn’t think of putting my career before my marriage and family. I wonder: if subtle, unconscious conditioning can affect someone like me, how would it affect women who are raised under a different set of rules and expectations?

5) How can we can address this?

We need to raise gender neutral children! Let boys and girls be alike and get rid of the gender stereotyping which starts when we buy blue for a baby boy and pink for baby girl!


 

Kim

 

 

1) Can you describe your identity? 

I am a Korean and have been living in Malaysia for many years. I am working in the entertainment industry and interestingly, living in Malaysia has opened my eyes to diversity and many cultures.

2) What does being a woman mean to you?

In Korea, there exists a stereotype that a woman is vulnerable and the weaker sex in society, but I believe a woman is stronger than what people in general think she is.

3) What are your most common experiences as a woman – be it at home/at work/at school/in public? 

In the business world, people tend to take women for granted, they do not take a woman’s opinion and ideas seriously. We are living in this modern world, but equality between the sexes is not yet a full reality.

4) How has living in a male-dominated/patriarchal society shaped you and the women around you?  

It only creates a stronger stereotypical image of women in society, and women are unable to express themselves from the female’s point of view. It occurs even more in East Asia regions like Korea and Japan; even though they are open to accepting different ideas and influences beyond their shores, culture-wise they are still quite conservative which translates into their society and community (where attitudes towards women are concerned).

5) How can we can address this?

We should not take a provocative approach; instead, we should find a wiser way to change societal attitudes and behaviours towards women.


 

Archana

 

 

1) Can you describe your identity? 

I will be 27 in June. I am of the Indian race and Hindu religion. As a humanist and an existentialist, I believe everything and everyone deserves love and respect. My work revolves around youth.

2) What does being a woman mean to you?

It’s all about being present as a person, no less.

3) What are your most common experiences as a woman – be it at home/at work/at school/in public? 

I had a caring upbringing at home, although I’ve had relatives that imposed gender-based rules. I remember having arguments to explain why I should not do something just because my male cousin told me to do so. The argument went on for hours. It was all about girls doing what their brothers told them to. Growing up without a birth brother, I find the situation in contrary to my upbringing.

At school, I have had instances of being told that I was ‘too bold’ or ‘open’ by teachers and fellow students. Female students who exhibited feminine demeanour were more accepted. Thanks to my upbringing, I never felt the need to conform but to stand strong as an individual.

At work, I have been dismissed when faced with sexual assault by a foreign delegate during a conference in my first year of work with comments like, “it’s normal, because you are a girl” or something along the lines of “you pretty, mah” and “you are pretty, so that’s why”. Stereotyped gender roles were often discussed and emphasised, where I was told that women are responsible for the children and home while men work as the providers. We also had to conform to certain dress codes that are deemed acceptable or appropriate – I view this as a form of body policing towards women.

Waiters have ignored my order while in the presence of my father. I have been physically harassed after a car accident. What else? I think I can draw a long list.

However, I have had my privileges over the years, of being, meeting and working with amazing women leaders. Also, having a strong woman figure at home helped me become the woman I am today.

4) How has living in a male-dominated/ patriarchal society shaped you and the women around you?  

It has made me a tougher person, able to stand up for myself and others, be it family, friends or colleagues. I now make more conscious decisions for myself, from what I do, wear and so forth. When questioned about my actions, instead of being upset or bewildered, I turn the question into a constructive conversation to create a better understanding of the choices I make.

At times, I do get tired of having to explain why it’s not wrong for a female to do something that a male would. I have female friends who are psychologically “forced” to conform to wearing the headscarf, for example. There is a serious need to have a conversation about this. It is not merely gender-based discrimination, but it intersects with other forms of discrimination, too.

5) How can we can address this?

We need to stand strong for ourselves and not give in to discrimination just because it takes effort to stand up. In fact, we need to shake up society!

Awareness is the first step. The comes having conversations about the issue, and a solid plan of action to address the various forms of patriarchy in our society.

Among the actions we can take are having a safe space for communities to share their stories, actively debunking gender-based stereotypes in society, and creating an ecosystem that connects collective actions and individual actions. We need corporations and non-profit organisations to take measures on the state of gender inequality in their respective systems. This could potentially make a difference for the generations to come.

A Call for Gender Diversity From the Top of the Ladder

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The current global conversation on corporate governance hones in on the need to accelerate greater diversity on corporate leadership and management. The call for diversity includes variants such as gender, ethnicity, age, and skill set. This entry seeks to highlight the importance of improving gender balance in the composition of corporate leadership.

Some may question the reason for this emphasis. Others may say, “If the woman is, at all, capable, shouldn’t she be in a position of authority? Why is there a need for such an initiative? After all, promotion should be given based on meritocracy, should it not?” Making it a requirement for any board of leadership to intentionally allocate a seat for a woman, simply to fulfil gender diversity, would mean the practice of merit-based performance may have been compromised.

Having a woman on any leadership board should never be about meeting a prerequisite, filling a quota, or heeding a need to satisfy the government’s call for an agenda. Rather, it should be about ensuring qualified and competent women are given access into the positions worthy of their merit without having to fight against barriers that exist because of their gender.

The barriers that the women of today need to overcome stems from a misguided prejudice and skewed perception, both of which will hinder their progress into positions of power or senior management roles. A Harvard Business Review article sums up the following as some of the barriers faced by females:

Prejudice: Men are promoted more quickly than women with equivalent qualifications, even in traditionally female settings such as nursing and education.

Resistance to women in leadership: People view successful female managers as more deceitful, pushy, selfish, and abrasive than successful male managers.

Leadership style issues: Many female leaders struggle to reconcile qualities people prefer in women (compassion for others) with qualities people think leaders need to succeed (assertion and control).

Family demands: Women are still the ones who interrupt their careers to handle work / family trade-offs. Overloaded, they lack time to engage in the social networking essential to advancement.

 

Image taken from The 30% Club Malaysia chapter

 

Closer to home, the Diversity Action Committee in Singapore found the reason why women are still sidelined – when it comes to most senior positions – are due to corporate governance practices of firms. Companies in Singapore are not required to disclose board diversity practices, which means change is not a necessity. Because of that, women in Singapore bear the brunt of this oversight, with board renewals being stagnant –22% independent directors stay on longer than 10 years – making the percentage for promotions impossibly slim. In addition, 93% of appointments of new directors are sourced through personal contacts or network from the male-dominated senior corporate leader’s pool, saturating top ranking positions with even more male corporate leaders.

To counter this linear perception and encourage a positive response to the call for corporate gender diversity, female corporate leaders from around the world – including Malaysia in 2015 – have established a country-specific ‘30% Club’. This industry-driven initiative aims to bolster better corporate leadership and governance, as well as increase corporate performance for the benefit of companies and their shareholders through board gender diversity.

 

We return to the pressing question of the day: Why is it imperative to have women onboard?

 

A 2012 report by Standard Chartered Bank, Women on Boards: Hang Seng Index discovered that top-ranking companies on the index had a number of women on their boards. Topping the list is Hang Seng Bank, with four women, representing 31.3% of its board. Conversely, the three lowest ranking companies have no women in their board.

A study on 1,643 companies on the MSCI World Index has proved that companies with strong female leadership delivers a 36% higher return on equity, averaging at 10.1% return on equity from the end of 2009 to September 2015, compared to companies without women at the most senior ranks, which scored an average of 7.4%.  The Singapore Board Diversity Report 2014 – The Diversity Dividend found that boards with gender diversity have an average return on assets of 3.3% versus 0.3% of those without.

The numbers do not lie; the data is proof that having gender diversity points towards a positive growth in a company’s performance.

It didn’t take long for boards to realise that a better gender balance in senior ranks is a business issue, not a woman’s issue, Helena Morrissey – who established the first 30% Club (United Kingdom) said. Simply put, achieving a gender-variant board is an effective way to moving forward and grow because it enhances decision-making with new perspective that represents female consumers. This delivers a richer customer insight throughout their service and production value chain.

Diversity of skills, experience, and gender are also regarded as key indicators of good governance, which is likely to attract more investors.

 

Image taken from The 30% Club Malaysia chapter

 

With an expected turn to Asia for global business focus in the near future, it is an opportune time for the new Malaysian Code on Corporate Governance to champion gender diversity and effectively root for the Prime Minister’s message to increase women’s participation in boards and senior management level in Malaysia.

The Code is part of a three-year strategic plan to advance key corporate governance priorities, which includes plans for collaborations with industry groups and stakeholders to increase women’s participation in the top 100 companies on Bursa Malaysia. The new Code will require PLC to disclose their targets and measures to meet gender diversity in their annual report. For companies on the FTSE Bursa Malaysia Top 100 Index or companies with market capitalisation of RM2 billion and above, their board gender composition should include a requisite minimum of 30% women.

With regards to the progress of our nation on this, Malaysia leads the way with the largest year-on-year increase in women representation from 8.3% to 12.5% (2014), ahead of 10 economies in the Asia-Pacific region. Whilst this achievement is commendable, we are still far from our goal. Currently, the number of women representation stands at 16.8%.  The aim is to raise women participation on board to 30% by year 2020, which would mean the drive, work, and effort done at present needs to be accelerated to close the gap within the next 3 years.

To help companies source for women directors, Malaysia has developed a Women Directors Registry to provide data of all eligible and qualified Malaysian women for board positions. Besides providing structured training curriculum that includes board readiness assessment, coaching and mentoring programs are already in motion, to ensure sufficient qualified women are in the pipeline to take up the seats in the board.

With such initiatives and a growing pool of women corporate professionals in Malaysia, it seems, to me, that the 30% women on board by 2020 target, very much plausible and possible.

Here’s hoping for another ‘Malaysia Boleh’ achievement we can all be proud of!


References

  1. Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership by Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli – Harvard Business Review, Sept 2007
  2.  Singapore Board of Directors’ Survey 2015
  3.  The MSCI World Index, which is part of The Modern Index Strategy, is a broad global equity benchmark that represents large and mid-cap equity performance across 23 developed markets countries.
  4.  NUS Business School, by Dr Marleen Dieleman, Dr Qian Meijun and Mr Muhammad Ibrahim.
  5.  Study on Australia, China Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea by Korn Ferry and the National University of Singapore Business School 2014.

The Ambitious Woman’s Dilemma

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My mother calls me a workaholic. I prefer… ambitious.

The truth is, I am extremely proud of what I do.

My career is a large part of who I am; it defines me. It helps me to make sense of my role in society and I use it as a driving force to continuously improve myself. However, as I am about to turn twenty-seven, I have started to have the yearnings of becoming a mother. At first, I embraced this new revelation, but then as I started to progress in my career… the idea began to scare me. I feared what it would do to my budding career.

I’m not naïve. I know that most workplaces discriminate against working mothers. I remember participating in various work events where most of the married women were unable to join. I mean, does it make sense for a young mother to go for weekly badminton game sessions after work or late night mamak sessions on Friday nights? While the rest of the team bonded, the working mothers often got sidelined.

It is interesting, however, that the married man can ALWAYS make it for after-work hang outs. But that’s a different story.

So, while the working mother might not be able to bond with her colleagues, she does not escape their judgement, either. I’ll be honest, I used to judge a colleague of mine for leaving early so she could pick her child up from the nursery, or when she had to leave our meetings halfway through because it was getting late and she wanted to put her baby to sleep. And that would mean that the rest of the team had to cover her unfinished work.

And it gets worse.

Recently, a General Manager from a local corporation shared how his colleague had to decline his department’s participation in a new project because the majority of his staff are working mothers. This means that it is simply “impossible” for them to meet the deadlines. He cited that they are reluctant to do overtime and are never “focused” at work. These are the same reasons that the upper management use when it comes to giving out promotions to working mothers. Maybe this is why very few women actually rise up in the ranks at their workplace…

While working mothers get discriminated at work (especially by poor colleagues like me), the rest of society is not much kinder. The standards on what it means to be a “good mother” and a “good wife” are often used as a yardstick, especially against working mothers who are unable to be at home 24/7.

I listened to a close friend of mine beat herself up because she could not manage her home to the standard that her stay-at-home mom did. She could not cut herself some slack despite having to leave for work at 6.30AM every morning and return home at 9 PM every night. And I believe most working mothers feel this guilt; it is either induced by the people around them, or self-inflicted. This shows the powerful influence these standards hold over working mothers. It is unsurprising, then, that their careers take a backseat.

With all this evidence before us, you can understand why I am reluctant to start a family. Especially when my work is so important to me.

Still, I was determined to find answers. So, naturally, I turned to the women in my life.

I spoke with ten women, four of whom are married. I tried to reach as diverse a group as possible, but my time was limited and most of the working women I know are around my age. Another caveat would be that most of these women grew up in metropolitan areas and have access to opportunities that would allow them to have successful careers. They also have similar views to mine, although in varying degrees. I asked them a series of questions in order to reveal their views on marriage and married women, challenges faced by working mothers at their workplaces and what they think is the best solution to my dilemma.

Views on Marriage and Married Women

On the topic of marriage, everyone seems to agree that marriage is a natural phase of life, and that they do plan on getting married at some point. In fact, 4 out of 10 of the women I spoke with believe that it is a practical and economical move. Since most of the women I interviewed are in their mid-2os to early 30s, what stood out was that, for those who are actively looking for a partner, it is because of the pressures they receive from their family and friends. Considering that these women earn their own income and were raised as “city kids”, it is somewhat surprising that the pressure to have someone “take care of them” is still prevalent among us. Somehow, there is a sense that they are deemed “incomplete” individuals because they are still unmarried.

When asked about their views on women who married early (below 25), none of the women seemed to have a problem with it since they understood it is a human right. However, 9 out 10 women would not prefer for their own daughters to marry early. They believe in changing the emphasis on marriage and would instil the value of independence instead. I asked one of the mothers in the group why the emphasis on independence was important and she replied, “If you were smart, you would focus on your career first. It is important for women to have something to fall back on because you can’t depend on men.” And this came from a happily married woman with four children.

Challenges Faced by Working Mothers at Work

I am not proud of this, but I did find two women who felt apprehensive when it came to working with mothers. The view that you would have to take on a bit more of the work compared to the working mother is very much real. In fact, it is common sense. However, I do feel that this apprehension comes mainly from a place of inconvenience and work-related stress. The rest, that did not share this apprehension, came from relatively understanding workplaces. In fact, I found out that one such organization actually compensates their employees who are obliged to take on extra work in the absence of colleagues who were on maternity leave.

Based on my conversations, I found out that the industry that you belong to does affect your job performance as a mother. Since I come from the education sector, my work environment has proven to be supportive of working mothers, which leads me to believe that there is some truth to that stereotype. Similarly, non-profits and start-ups are known for their unique work culture and policies, such as flexible working hours or days and work from home options.

On the other hand, a friend who works in the corporate sector shared how her marital status does affect her ability to climb up the ranks. Interestingly enough, this affects men, too, since bosses tend to prefer the ‘single’ status. This translates to your ability to commit to the job since you do not have other “responsibilities”.

 

Best Solution to My Dilemma

What stood out about these women, especially the single ones, was that they all seem to have a timeline for marriage. Most of them intend to “move on” with their lives once they get past 35; meaning that they would assume total independence and disregard societal expectations. One claims that she would move out of her family home by that age, while others are considering adoption. Considering that 9 out of 10 of these women subscribe to a faith, it is necessary for them to get married in order to become mothers. That is why I feel the need to address the role of the wife in this discussion since in most contexts, the roles of wife and mother go hand in hand. However, since adoption by single women is permissible in most religions, these women are open to considering it an option.

Having said that, they are careful to not romanticise the idea of single parenthood. It is hard work, and having a partner would help, vastly, when it comes to raising a child.

Which brings us to the question: what makes a good life partner? Now, this can be a standalone discussion in its own right, but to be brief, these women believe that a good partner is someone who understands the importance of self-actualization. Case in point: one of the women cited her husband as her inspiration and motivation for possibly pursuing her Masters. Another claims that she has become more independent because her husband supports all her pursuits.

Another key lesson that I learned came from a friend within the group. She made a valid point on how women tend to react to the pressures of society. She posits that we tend to react, rather than respond, to the pressures that come our way, especially when it comes to making key life decisions.

Why do we need to be married by 25? Why must I have a baby before I turn 30? Instead, we should respond to these pressures by considering whether we actually want to do something because we are ready, and not because society expects us to do so.

If that means that I have to work twice as hard at the office in future because a single colleague is apprehensive towards working with me, then I will prove her wrong. Because, ultimately, my personal choice is my career.

I am aware that this is easier said than done, but the things that matter are supposed to be difficult. I believe that our approach, however, should not be rigid.  The greatest crime we can commit upon ourselves is to allow these expectations to dictate how we live our lives.

True freedom for a woman is when she stops putting limitations on her needs and capabilities – it is standing up, instead, to those limitations and saying, “I’ll be doing this my way, thanks.”

The Gender Rock & Roles

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by Izwan Kamaruddin 

I was born in a year when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on the space shuttle Challenger. Maggie Thatcher won a landslide victory in the UK General Election while Indira Gandhi was serving her fourth year as the only female Indian Prime Minister, ever.

Pink Floyd was still airing regularly on the radio waves. Mr T premiered with the “A-Team” early that year. It was also the year Star Wars released Episode VI: Return of The Jedi and that year, APRANET officially adopted TCP/IP as the only approved protocol, therefore creating the Internet. Microsoft Word, the application used to produce this article, was also first released in 1983.

The problem with the concept of ‘gender roles’

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By Lalitha Monisha

A few days ago, the president of Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) told reporters that feminism does not belong in Malaysia as it is “causing women to neglect their husbands and children”. There were many other things he said when expounding his views on the role of a female in society, which we shall not waste space here repeating. You can read that article here.

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