Getting women back to work

Transformation Unplugged by IDRIS JALA Transformation Unplugged by IDRIS JALA

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 contribute.

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, 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 opportunities.

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 United Kingdom, 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 Malaysia-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 ’s governor, Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz? Why are there so few prominent women corporate personalities such as Astro Malaysia’s Datuk Rohana Rozhan, Selangor Dredging’s Teh Lip Kim, AirAsia’s Aireen Omar or Bursa 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 tax deductions.

Flexi hours

The 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, fully motivated.

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 Programme to prepare suitable candidates for “board readiness”.

Today, we have 358 women who have completed the programme 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 about 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 Bhd, MISC Bhd, 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 centres, tax exemptions for childcare centres 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 and the Securities Commission 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