by Helym haja Mydin. First published in The New Straits Times 19 June 2015
A doctor recently stated that women were unsuitable for a certain medical specialty and should not be allowed to enlist for training. The most shocking aspect of this statement was the fact that it was uttered by a woman. She obviously knew the difficulties faced by women when navigating the often treacherous path of medical training. Unfortunately she also appears to have fallen victim to the herd’s viewpoint that one’s gender is a criteria that should be used when determining suitability for a particular job.
Women don’t have it easy. They are judged differently and often negatively against criteria that are deemed desirable in men. As Sheryl Sandberg stated in Lean In, “Aggressive and hard-charging women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost.”
The current furor over Farah Ann Abdul Hadi’s attire during the SEA Games is an example of the increasingly selective persecution of women in the public sphere. It smacks of hypocrisy when a woman is targeted but men in tight-fitting clothing are given a free pass. The increasing dogmatic approach in determining what a woman chooses for herself, from clothing to career, goes against the progressive aspirations of Malaysia.
I am fortunate, having grown up with and continually surrounded by strong women. My mother worked tirelessly as a nurse with my parents placing a premium on education for their daughters. I am blessed with a wife who is not only passionate about work but independent. I am also surrounded by female friends and colleagues who not only strive to have a career, but to excel at it as well.
The evidence is far from anecdotal. Norway, oft-cited for its progressive policies, subsidises childcare and allows generous parental leave that encourages mothers to return to work quickly. Almost three-quarters of females aged 15-64 are in its workforce. The finance minister, Sigbjorn Johnsen stated that if Norway were to reduce female participation in the workforce to the average for western OECD countries, it would lose as much wealth as the entire oil sector and much-touted sovereign wealth fund provide.
Johan Mahmood Merican of TalentCorp recently pointed out that only a third of public-listed companies have flexible working arrangements for women, leading to a high drop-off rate of working mothers in the corporate sector. This is particularly wasteful, given that more than two-thirds of local public university enrolments consist of women.
With the advent of modern technology, it should be increasingly possible for part-time or other forms of flexible working patterns to be established. Identification of these patterns allows companies (and governments) to innovate workforce planning and financial modeling in a manner that suits both the needs of the employer and that of the enthused worker. TalentCorp should be lauded for its ‘Career Comeback Programme’, where it connects professionals to employers who offer flexible working arrangements.
The landscape of medicine will change as well – more than half of all new medical students today are female. This will have profound implications for the future of the profession. The United Kingdom’s Royal College of Physicians has highlighted this issue and has taken steps to ensure that women are not victimised for taking maternal leave. This includes providing flexibility for part-time work and the option to lengthen training programs depending on individual need. These are options that are far better than the alternative of setting rigid rules that do not take into account the realities of life which more often than not, drive skilled individuals away from the workforce.
The push for structural changes has to be preceded by a paradigm shift in mentality. The emancipation from the culturally regressive notion of women as passive beings subservient to the needs men is not a liberal agenda, but one that lies in the foundation of the religion of Islam itself. The majority Muslims in Malaysia should take heed of the lessons set by our Prophet s.a.w. He not only taught us the importance of elevating the role of women, but was married to Siti Khadijah, a lady who was widely-recognised as a successful businesswoman in her own right (which is all the more impressive in the even more male-dominated Arab society more than a millennia ago).
Women should stop being made to feel guilty for wanting what men can take for granted – the opportunity to be judged by one’s ability and productivity rather than the expectations of vocal elements in society. As Emma Watson pointed out when launching the United Nation’s HeForShe campaign, this cause needs to be taken up by men as much as women. I for one would like my daughter to be judged by her achievements as a human being, rather than her appearances.
The issue at hand is more than just about feminism, but goes into our ability and willingness to address inequalities that come in all shapes and forms, from racial discrimination to economic disparities to gender bias.
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Dr Helmy Haja Mydin is an Associate Professor at Universiti Malaya and an Associate of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).