July 22, 2013 by Idris Jala
The women-friendly workplace makes good sense.
Corporate leaders would agree with me that more often than not we end up losing good
talent when we are unable to provide the right environment for them to thrive and
I wish to draw your attention to a serious human capital challenge we are facing
in Malaysia today - something that a nation on track towards becoming high income
should rightfully address.
Recently, I had the opportunity to launch flexWorkLife.my, a new portal by the Ministry of Women, Family
and Community Development and TalentCorp that brings together a network of employers
and employees to share information on flexible work arrangements and family-friendly
facilities. It also features best practices, case studies, success stories and job
Whilst the concept of flexible working arrangement is not new, it has not been widely
practiced in our country which is probably why among other things, the participation
of Malaysian women in the labour force is the lowest in the Asean region. In 2012,
workforce participation by women of employable ages was at 47.9% or 4.58 million
out of the total 9.57 million. This is unacceptable.
On the other hand, in 2010, Singapore recorded 60% women participation in the workforce.
The figure for Laos touched 80%, while the UK, Denmark and Sweden women participation
is at about 68%, 75% and 74% respectively.
Interestingly, women make up 68% of public university intake in the 2013/2014 session.
Although women represent a significant percentage of university students, with most
of them entering into the job market upon graduation, many drop out when they rise
up in their career.
The TalentCorp-ACCA Report on Retaining Women in the Workforce shows that women opt
out of the job market as they take on additional roles in their lives in line with
societal norms - they marry and raise children or are caregivers of ailing parents.
Women dropping off from the talent pipeline leads to an imbalance in the workforce
as there are very few women at the senior management and Board level, with only
7% of board seats of all Bursa listed companies held by women.
While corporate success alone should not be the only yardstick to measure the achievements
of Malaysian women, I am inclined to ask, why don't we have more iconic leaders
of the calibre of Bank Negara Malaysia's Governor, Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz?
Why are there so few prominent women corporate personalities such as Astro Malaysia's
Dato' Rohana Rozhan, Selangor Dredging's Teh Lip Kim, AirAsia's Aireen Omar or Bursa
Malaysia Chief Regulatory Officer Selvarany Rasiah, as opposed to the many male
corporate success stories?
Although men are increasingly more domestically savvy, the expectation still largely
falls upon women to lead the care-giving role in families and this often tends to
adversely affect their career progression. In most cases, they do not drop out as
a matter of choice, but rather, it is often the last resort.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)'s Asia Pacific Human
Development Report 2010, increasing female labour participation rate to 55% will
increase Malaysia's GDP by 2% annually but for me personally this cause holds a
far bigger motivation.
The ETP aims to take Malaysia towards becoming a high income nation in an inclusive
and sustainable manner, and I do not wish to see women lose out on the opportunities
available to them in this country.
Furthermore, having led organisations through challenging phases, I have seen the
positive benefits of having diverse teams and how the varying traits of female and
male employees can be leveraged to produce excellent results.
Malaysian companies can play a powerful role in encouraging retention of women in
the workplace and the Government is prepared to support the private sector in this
initiative. In encouraging women friendly policies at the workplace, the Government
allows companies that re-employ and train women after a career break to claim double
The flexWorkLife.my initiative
highlights various flexible working arrangements including compressed work week,
flexi hours, job sharing, leaving early from work, project based work, telecommuting
and weekend work, to name a few. Study these methods and start implementing the
ones that work best.
During my stint as Vice President of Shell Retail International, London, where flexi
hours, job sharing and working from home were practiced, the company had been successful
in not only retaining women talent but keeping the entire workforce, myself included,
I am pleased to note that 49 women directors have been appointed to boards of listed
companies in the first half of 2013. I am frequently told in my conversation with
CEOs of listed companies that they recognise the benefits of board diversity for
corporate performance. The challenge is to find the right board candidate, regardless
of gender, that has the right skill set and experience.
To address the issue of "supply" and provide visibility of the talent available,
the NAM Institute of Empowerment of Women (NIEW) under the Ministry of Women, Family
and Community Development introduced a Women Directors Program to prepare suitable
candidates for "board readiness".
Today, we have 358 women who have completed the program and by the end of the year,
we will have a total of 700 women who will be part of the talent pool. Personally,
I have written to approximately 900 PLCs requesting them to nominate women candidates
as part of the talent pool. I have also sent a personal letter to all Chairman and
CEOs of GLICs and key GLCs requesting for their support. To ensure that we are on
track, a baseline study is being conducted to determine the number of women on boards
as well as ascertain the factors which hinder women from being appointed on boards.
I would like to applaud companies such as MAHB, Plus Expressway Bhd, Telekom Malaysia,
TNB and EPF who have three women directors on board. These GLICs and GLCs have led
the path forward for others to emulate. Public listed companies such as MK Land
Holdings Berhad, MISC Berhad, Malaysia Airport Holdings Bhd and Jaya Tiasa Holdings
Bhd are also lauded for having at least 30% of their boards comprising of women.
Additionally, as part of the Government's human capital development efforts, various
initiatives have been introduced to provide more support for women such as fee assistance
for childcare, launching grants for the set-up of new childcare centers, tax exemptions
for childcare centers and double tax deductions for employers who provide employees
with childcare facilities.
Citibank is the first bank in Malaysia to provide childcare facilities (CitiKids)
for their employees. Both Bank Negara Malaysia and the Securities Commission of
Malaysia are also on the forefront of childcare support, with their extensive and
impressive childcare facilities.
Recognising women's key role in the ETP, two bold and aspirational policies have
been announced – to increase women participation in the labour market to 55%
and to increase women participation in decision making positions to 30% by 2016.
In this 21st century, a woman is an asset at all levels of society and this is reflected
in the various efforts made by the governments of Netherlands and Norway in ensuring
that the welfare of women in their workplace is safeguarded.
Malaysia must follow suit if we are to be a high income, high talent nation - we
must unleash the energy and full potential of Malaysian women. If we do not do this,
it would be a shame for our nation is certainly blessed with many brilliant, highly
talented and capable women!
Datuk Seri Idris Jala is CEO of PEMANDU, the Performance Management and Delivery
Unit, and Minister in the Prime Minister's Department. Fair and reasonable comments
are most welcome at idrisjala@PEMANDU.gov.my.