For a large part of history, men dominated the top of the food chain when it came to achieving a successful career – while women were relegated to staying at home. Today, women are realising their potentials and breaking barriers left and right to emerge as high-achievers. This continues to pave a path for future generations of girls to continue defying society’s expectations. In line with our ‘Gender Inequality: Balancing the Scales’ campaign, this Article Series will discuss the journeys of successful women who have succeeded in a wide variety of industries across Malaysia.
Growing up as an only child Prof. Elizabeth Lee was treated as ‘both son and daughter’. While cognizant of the importance of culture and traditions, there were no typical gender distinctions placed onto her.
While her father encouraged her decision to become an educator, she was almost put off by her mother who remarked “Being a teacher is a good career for women because it means you can go home and take care of your family after a half day’s work”. Thankfully, she went the other direction and fully plunged herself into the education career that she had chosen, allowing her to fully enjoy her vocation.
While pursuing her Masters at Cambridge, she wrote up on gender differences in language acquisition as a follow-up from her Bachelors that focused on Multicultural Differences in SchoolEducation. After graduating, she launched her career in education and never looked back. She hopes to impact and inspire an army of students, to continue pursuing the hopes and dreams of a teacher.
Prof. Lee says that she never allowed herself to think that she encountered gender discrimination at work, as she was a firm believer in cooperation between the genders instead of seeing each other as a threat. She stands for gender equality as men and women bring different strengths to the workplace.
She notes many instances where women may handicap themselves by coming up with excuses why they cannot pursue their dream careers, to which she replies that they should always go for it. At the same time, it is totally laudable to decide to be a homemaker, whether you are a manor a woman.
Speaking from personal experience, she had to juggle a career as well as being a wife and mother. With 3 daughters, she tried to be there for them and not miss any major events that they were involved in. This is because children need to know that they are always supported emotionally, even if not physically at times. When mothers are part of their major milestone-moments, children understand they can count on their mothers when it matters.
While acknowledging that women are given the role of carrying children in their wombs, the burden of raising a family while simultaneously pursuing careers should be shared between the father and the mother. Many women have successfully juggled both family and careers, and these working mothers should be applauded for overcoming this difficulty. Today, their struggles are acknowledged and they are given more flexibility at work. By believing that ‘when there’s a will, there’s a way’, a woman can be both a mother and work.
According to Dr. Alice Eagly, a professor of psychology and the James Padilla Chair of Arts andSciences at Northwestern University, “Research has shown that, in general, women who are rising in leadership roles are not clones of male leaders. They typically are more participative and democratic than men in their approach to leadership. The goals that they pursue tend to place greater emphasis on the public good, consistent with their more compassionate and egalitarian value”.
The Public Effort to Fight Gender Inequality
“Malaysia Gender Gap Index (MGGI) scored 70.9 per cent in 2019. Achievement of women has surpassed men in Educational Attainment, with a sub-index score of 1.053. This is followed byHealth and Survival (0.958), then Economic Participation and Opportunity (0.717),” says Dato’ SriDr. Mohd Uzir Mahidin, Chief Statistician of Malaysia. He notes that labour force participation rate (LFPR) for women is still low at 55.6 per cent, compared to Australia’s 72.5 per cent andSingapore’s 69.1 per cent.
Based on this score, Malaysia ranked 73rd globally, dropping ten places compared to 2018 when we scored 71.1 per cent. Within East Asia and the Pacific, Malaysia remains ahead of Thailand,Indonesia, China and Brunei Darussalam while lagging behind New Zealand, Australia andSingapore.
Through the promotion of the rights of girls and women in the country, Malaysia continues to work on its commitment to gender equality. In recognition of the significant roles that women play, the Malaysian government advocates and implements initiatives for gender equality that are in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) and the EleventhMalaysia Plan (RMK11).
This is just the beginning, and more can be done. Prof. Lee calls upon the women to begin taking this seriously, by working hard to achieve it as “Women can actively invalidate discrimination!”
Prof. Lee appreciates the many men who supported her journey, who gave her opportunities and enabled her. But, it was the women and their compassion and passion that continued to fuel her until today. There have been so many, including her teachers, friends, greater wives of great men and the female hawkers who have her utmost respect as they juggle their businesses and families.
When it comes to breaking the glass ceiling, Prof. Lee posits that women should believe in themselves and do their jobs well. This will instil the trust of their superiors while also allowing them the chance of raising a family. They should do away with their stereotypical thoughts, and instead believe that they can do the job and prove it.
Prof. Lee also encourages women who are experiencing gender inequality to speak up and show the world that they are up for the task through action. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that this fight will take time and persuasion and change cannot happen overnight.
To foster a positive environment, women need to support women. Women also definitely need tos upport men too, at all fronts, just as men need to appreciate what women can bring to the boardroom table. An inclusive working environment must be created, and society as a whole must support a change of mindset when it comes to women in leadership and decision-making roles.
We at MSGA believe that all of us young women leaders should take up the challenges despite the fear, and not allow the chatters to diminish our goals in life. At the end of the finish line, all society will see is the success that we attain and gender roles will take a backseat.
Nur Amalina Ahmad Zaki, Assistant Vice President of Advocacy, MSGA.
Published 15 February 2021.