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New Straits Times (Malaysia): Working women, balancing acts

Chai Mei Ling; Wong Ying Sim; Aniza Zainudin,
Published: Aug 05, 2007

EVEN as working mothers worldwide mull over the decision of whether to hang up their powersuits and don the apron, they are asked to consider a different perspective. CHAI MEI LING, WONG YING SIM and ANIZA ZAINUDIN at the Women’s Summit, find out more about the options and challenges women face when juggling the work-life balance.

About one-tenth of the Malaysian population last year scrubbed, cooked and cleaned their way to billions of ringgit.

They were neither chefs nor cleaners, but housewives.

The unpaid carework carried out by the three million housewives in the country was reportedly worth a whopping RM55 billion. Now, if stay-at-home mothers could generate that kind of savings for the nation, imagine how much more the economy could reap from women thriving in the workforce.

Their full potential in contributing to the economic sector is yet to be realised. Making up only 36 per cent of the nation’s workforce, women still find themselves bound to the socially-conditioned role of caretaker.

In a turnaround phenomenon, some developed countries like the United States are seeing more and more mothers ditching their careers in favour of staying home to care for their young.

According to writer and journalist Leslie Bennetts, this growing phenomenon is cause for concern and should not be regarded as merely a lifestyle choice, as it is actually a serious economic issue. Most of these women who opt out from work are young, established and educated. In taking a few years off, they become fully dependent on their husband’s income to support their children and themselves.

Little do they know that entering the workforce again would pose an uphill battle, with women ending up losing much more than they could afford in the long run.

“It is a risky option. Women dropping out of the labour force will eventually find themselves in the wrong side,” said Bennetts, who authored the book The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? More than 90 per cent of women who quit their jobs and wish to return once their children were older were confident they could pull it off.

But the stark reality is the search for a new job is made more difficult with age, sexism and other discrimination working against women.

Bennetts was speaking to a 2,000-strong assembly of women at the Women’s Summit on Thursday, which addressed the issue of work-life balance for women.

Ways to get more women out into the working world and to retain those already in the workforce was the main topic of discussion at the event.

Organised by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, the annual summit, now in its fifth year, was themed “Putting Women at the Heart of Development”.

Being financially dependent on husbands places women in a vulnerable position, especially with rising divorce rates and women outliving men.

“Marriage is an economic partnership but it is not an equal partnership because women take on nearly all economic risks, ” said Bennetts. Research has shown that a woman’s standard of living nosedives by 36 per cent after a divorce, while a male divorcee’s rises by 28 per cent.

Bennetts stressed that her advice to women not to give up on their work, doesn’t mean she’s denying women a choice to be homemakers.

Many homemakers believe that by working, they are short-changing their children, but this is not true according to research. Sociologists who compared children of working mothers with those of full-time homemakers did not find that the latter turned out any better. Research has also shown that though stay-at-home mothers were happier when caring for their children compared to career mothers, they begin to face depression and a sense of loss when their children reached their teens and became less dependent on them.

One organisation, which has pledged its commitment to retain and increase its women employees by helping them achieve a work-life balance, is Shell International.

With an aim to have women make up half of its employees, with at least 20 per cent of women sitting in senior executive positions, Shell is bent on creating an enabling and inclusive environment for women.

Recruiting 50 per cent women makes sense because there are more women students in universities and more women graduates, said Josefine Van Zanten, its global head of diversity and inclusiveness.

When the effort to get women into leadership positions slowed down, Shell found that the lack of visible female role models, responsibility to the family, lack of management experience as well as the failure of senior leaders to present women with opportunities, played a major role.

Shell took the challenges to task including organising career development programmes, requiring gender sessions for senior leaders, supporting and sponsoring women networks, and imposing flexibile work options.

“As of last week, we have done the best flexible options for all employees here in Malaysia,” said Van Zanten.

Another programme that Shell is set to implement is “Stay-In-Touch”.

“We want to stay in touch with women who are leaving the company, because they might want to come back in two to three years.” “For women, inclusion is extremely important. You must have leadership sponsorship, which looks something like senior leaders standing up and saying awe will place women on a shortlist’,” added Van Zanten.

For women who choose to continue working after starting a family, there is a growing host of challenges facing them, which comes with the changing landscape of the workforce.

With an aging labour force, the increase of the average retirement age and the workforce becoming more and more multi-generational, it is becoming increasingly challenging for women to find a balance, said Barbara Holmes, managing director of Managing Work/Life Balance.

The changing demographic scene means that the workforce now comes with different beliefs, difficulties, attitudes and thoughts about the role of mothers at the workplace.

“Dual-centric employees place the same priority on family and work while family-centric people place higher priority on family than work,” said Holmes, who is based in Sydney.

“Identify which category you fall into and work towards a more fulfilling life.

“Changes to a discriminating culture in an organisation must be made so that the company will be more responsive to the needs of women.” Keeping women happy at the workplace SOME 200 participants took part in The Summit Roundtable that was divided into focus groups. These were among their recommendations to the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. Public Sector Enhance the balance of work and life should be seen as a national issue * Impress upon civil servants, especially those with young families, the importance of balancing work and life.

* Increase maternity leave from two months to three and encourage other sectors to do the same.

Enhance flexibility in the work place * Enable women to manage children, households and spousal relationships and still be able to work.

* Provide music, restrooms and gymnasiums to allow employees to refresh and energise themselves.

* Provide flexible working hours to help employees spend less time on the road stuck in traffic. Child care facilities * All government departments to have child care facilities * Education Ministry to have one-session schools and provide children with proper meals during school hours.

Corporate Reforming taxation * Incentives for technology devices that enable employees to work from home.

Employment legislation * The laws, passed in 1955, no longer apply. Amend the laws to reflect work and life aspiration.

* Increase maternity leave. Present best family-friendly award to companies that promote a balance between work and life Back to basics * Build community spirit by having community centres that cater to families.

* Provide job opportunities for housewives or women away from work.

NGOs Flexibility in the workplace * Allow employees to work from home and not just during maternity and paternity leave periods.

* Flexibility to apply for at least one month of paternity leave whenever necessary.

Allow women to share jobs – one works the morning shift and another the afternoon. Monitor closely implementation of government policies.

SMEs Resources.

* Providing direct services, online services, and setting up of call centres to get information easily.

* Maintain updated database that allows everyone to network.

* Enforce laws that help women with disabilities.

Work-life balance * Encourage developers to include health facilities in buildings, run by professionals.

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