For a long time, men have dominated the top of the food chain when it comes to achieving a successful career, while women are expected to stay home to raise their kids and run the household. However, as time passes, women are breaking barriers and emerging to achieve their goals and full economic potential regardless of society’s expectations of women. 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.
Education as a background
Growing up in Subang Jaya, YB Hannah Yeoh was the eldest child of her family. She was raised in an open-minded family and was continuously inspired by her father to pursue whatever she desired. Gender bias was not something she experienced growing up and instead soared to explore her full potential that she was appointed into substantial roles since young such as head-prefect in school. It was the fruit of her family’s efforts in raising her to believe women are capable of accomplishing anything and everything regardless of society’s expectation of them.
Later in her early 20’s, she pursued a law degree in Australia and planned to stay on after graduation. However, she was rejected for her Australian PR application which ended her dream of settling overseas. The rejection of her Australian Permanent Residency application and the influence of YB Hannah’s school-friend, Edward, was the trigger point for YB Hannah to embark on a political career. She realised it was high time for her to take matters herself rather than feeling helpless to eradicate all the dislikes she had with the running of this country, Malaysia.
The start of the political journey
YB Hannah worked as a practising lawyer in Malaysia when she was forced to come home. She used to have intense lunch breaks together with her friend Edward. These lunch breaks involve having conversations about her unhappiness of not being granted a PR in Australia, not earning enough salaries in Malaysia compared to Australia as well as many other dissatisfactions with the current state of Malaysia. Edward on the other hand geared her into making plans on saving Malaysia rather than merely expressing the unhappiness of the state of the country, especially the corruption and politics. Then and there, YB Hannah decided to support this passionate young man by joining Democratic Action Party together with him. Despite no prior involvement with any political party and knowing nothing about politics, she immediately said yes when DAP wanted a female candidate for Subang Jaya, YB Hannah’s hometown. Winning the seat was so unreal, and it all took place so fast for her, especially for someone in their 20’s, but she started her new job as a Subang Jaya assemblyperson with her primary goal being to serve the people.
YB Hannah found it is crucial to share how becoming a politician was never part of her agendas. Instead, she had planned to be a preacher for God and to serve in a government ministry since her journey with God had been the one that served her immensely. However, one never knows what fate has in store for them. Her journey goes to show that one need not have to pursue a said goal from a young age to succeed in it, as it could also be something adopted along on one’s journey. It doesn't matter when one starts but so long as they confidently take up whatever is their heart’s desire, they would prosper. Now, YB Hannah truly believes this journey was her life purpose after all and why everything she pursued led her back to Malaysia.
Important to have female representation in politics
Despite the progress we have observed in this decade, women are still a rare part of politics, but there is a need for women to participate in politics as the government officials must reflect the citizens they are representing. Women make up 50% of the population, and some matters are best known to women themselves. Hence, it would not make much political sense for a group of men to sit and decide on such policies solely, and a female’s outlook on such matters could hugely reflect what the female citizens desire in the first place.
YB Hannah herself had been working on matters like the continuing decline of the fertility rate in Malaysia during her term as Deputy Minister of Women, Family, and Community Development. The fertility rate for Malaysia in 2020 was 1.976 births per woman, a 0.85% decline from 2019. It revealed that the average number of children born per woman in the country is below replacement for herself and her partner in the population which is alarming to many.
Maternity and paternity leave, work from home, and flexible working hours policies also need to be championed to increase the women’s involvement in the workforce to cushion the high responsibility placed on women when it comes to family matters that many are given no choice but to sacrifice their career. Hence, having women leaders in the field would contribute a lot to the growth of such policies as they firsthand experience such unequal burden that men do not. Hence, they can understand and tackle the underlying causes and solve the issues that concern half of the population.
The Politician, The Wife, The Mother
Priority management is important as it helps women when they are trying to juggle between work and family. YB Hannah has multiple times chosen to decline the many dinner invitations outstation and other social activities that may aid in developing her career as it would also lead to lesser involvement of herself in her children’s upbringing, and that was something she wasn’t willing to sacrifice. Travel limit within Subang Jaya was also set to make sure she can engage in activities such as telling bedtime stories to her kids during her second term and the third term when they were still very young.
Good supporting structures such as grandparents and relatives taking on child care duties truly helped YB Hannah build her career in serving the people. It takes a whole village to ensure a female politician carries out her job effectively. It may seem unfair since a male politician won’t face many challenges that are only faced by a woman. However, YB Hannah remarked that it is difficult to make it entirely equal. She mentioned that we should look forward to ensuring more women can enter the workforce and stay there as a starting point.
Malaysia's government is targeting to increase women's labour force participation rate to 56% in 2020 from the current 55.8%. This is in comparison to 80.9% for men. Even though Malaysia has more women than men graduating from university, the labour force participation rate for women is still much lower than men due to factors such as gender roles, work-family balance, lack of affordable care, and others. It was noted that women’s participation in the labour force peaks at ages 25 to 29, after which it declines and does not rise again. This is around the same time women generally bear children as tons of domestic responsibility associated with raising a family is placed on their shoulders.
Therefore, the need to support a working mother such as child care services is well recognized and it is the government's role to provide infrastructure to pave the way for women to cushion the difference in the burden placed on women as opposed to their male counterparts. YB Hannah added that the Covid-19 pandemic had accelerated the acceptance of work from home and flexible working hours, which they were trying so hard for employers to consider in the past.
The 2020 Malaysian political turmoil and emergence of a new youth-led political party Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), have escalated the call for more youth in the cabinet. More and more young people are now entering the political fray. However, YB Hannah urged youngsters to contemplate well and gain some experience in the field before they leap into it. She believes the youths must have political consciousness in deciding who is the best leader for the future of a nation as running for office is a whole different situation. Hence, students should explore the many opportunities to feel what it is like before they embark on it.
YB Hannah also encourages young women to be confident and not be swayed by society and their expectations. She also urges young girls to explore their strengths and weaknesses, especially during these younger ages as there is no better time than now to discover yourself and desires when you don’t have family commitments and other domestic responsibilities.
We at MSGA believe that all young women have a primary role to play in both one’s workplace and family. It is high time we soar to explore our full potentials, not holding back for fear nor expectations. We all have it within us to succeed, and with confidence, we will get there. It is our job to keep pushing despite hurdles, and someday we will shatter that glass ceiling.