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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

A Call for Gender Diversity From the Top of the Ladder

thegblogteam No Comments

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.
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