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Challenging Gender Norms: Rethinking Flexible Work for Everyone

Prepared by Nur Sakinah Alzian

21 March 2024

Women who work remotely or hybrid are just as ambitious as women who work on-site, according to McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2023 report(1). This year’s International Women’s Day theme of ‘Inspire Inclusion’ marks a timely acknowledgment of the crucial role that workplace flexibility plays in fostering inclusivity and empowering women. Inclusive policies that embrace different working arrangements are crucial, not only to enhance women's career aspirations but to also contribute to overall workplace equality. 

Recently, there was a suggestion from the government that a study on the Civil Service Remuneration System (CSRS) will consider shortening female civil servants' working hours to provide them with more flexibility to take care of their family, at the cost of reduced salaries(2). This proposition may pose a significant challenge and raises concerns about its potential adverse effects on women in the workforce, potentially exacerbating existing disparities.

How The Suggested Shorter Working Hours Negatively Impact Women

1.Reinforces Gender Norms

A reduction in salaries as a trade-off for flexibility risks perpetuating gender inequalities and excluding women from equal participation in the workforce. Primarily, this proposition amplifies gender essentialist stereotypes, reinforcing the belief that women are inherently designated as the primary caregivers in the family. When only women are permitted shorter working hours under the assumption that they are obliged to tend to familial needs, it risks sustaining an unequal distribution of care work between men and women(3). Consequently, women would end up being confined to the domestic sector, thereby risking setting Malaysia back in augmenting the representation of women in the public sphere of employment.

Employers may become disinclined to hire women due to the perception of shorter working hours. For example, when the Employment Act 1955 was amended last year to extend maternity leave from 60 to 98 days, some employers expressed a preference for hiring men over women. This will only worsen the gender discrimination that women face when finding a job and would affect women’s promotion to leadership positions. 

2.Widens Gender Pay Gap

Presently, women earn approximately RM 96.21 for every RM 100 earned by their male counterparts. If the likelihood of women being hired diminishes and salaries are further reduced, there is a looming concern that the gender pay gap in Malaysia may exacerbate.

Regardless of gender, family responsibility is a very present reality for many Malaysians. Instead of seeking to penalize or compensate those who seek to balance both work and family, we should instead strive to genuinely foster an inclusive environment that supports women and men's dual aspirations.

The Myth of Gender Specific Flexibility

In SERI’s recently published Malaysian Women in Workforce: Charting a Path to Inclusive Employment report, we found that the most important factor that influences women’s job search is work-life balance. 

This finding aligns with our analysis that family is significant in both supporting women’s career aspirations but also serves as a primary source of challenge in their career development. 

Our report advocates for a shift in the way we understand the problem of balancing work and family. Generally there is a prevailing belief, both at the policy and societal level, that women have to make an exclusive choice between career and family. Whether they opt for their family or their work, there's an inherent assumption that one must be sacrificed for the other.

Our report challenges this dichotomy, asserting that women inherently value both work and family. The problem, however, lies in the systemic and structural inadequacies that hinder women from being successful in both realms simultaneously. The crux of the issue does not lie in the necessity for women to choose but rather in the absence of supportive systems and structures that facilitate their success in both professional and familial domains.

It is imperative to recognize that the pursuit of work-life balance extends beyond being solely a women's issue; it is an everyone’s concern. McKinsey & Company's report underscores this universal need for flexibility, revealing that roughly 60% of men are actively taking steps to prioritize their personal lives. This dispels the prevalent misconception that only women seek flexible work arrangements.(5) Rethinking the narrative surrounding flexible work as a family matter is important. This shift challenges traditional gender norms that often designate women as primary caregivers and men as breadwinners. Such norms inadvertently lead to a lose-lose situation, where men find themselves sacrificing family for career, and women, conversely, opt for family at the expense of their careers.

It's crucial to understand that both mothers and fathers play pivotal roles within families, and embracing flexible work as a shared responsibility helps strike a balance in domestic and care duties at home. The existing gender norms perpetuate a scenario where absent fathers in households can give rise to potential challenges and hinder the optimal functioning of the family unit. Breaking away from these norms fosters an environment where both parents can actively participate in family life without compromising their professional pursuits.

What Should be Done?

In the spirit of ‘Inspiring Inclusion’ of this year’s International Women’s Day theme, a shift in the narrative surrounding flexible work should be at the forefront of the solution. It is imperative that we see the problem not just as a women’s issue but as a systemic gender problem involving both men and women. 

A paradigm shift is crucial, one that underscores the importance of revaluing the concept of family within both the public and private sectors. Women and men should not be penalized for choosing to balance both their work and their family. The key lies in recognizing that the core problem emanates from the unequal distribution of domestic and care work at home. Only by acknowledging and addressing this disparity rooted in gender norms, can we genuinely pave the way toward comprehensive solutions such as better parental leaves, childcare provision and flexible work arrangements. 

As aptly stated by Indonesian women’s rights advocate, Raden Adjeng Kartini, “We can be entirely human without ceasing to be a complete woman”. Empowering women means affording them the freedom to excel in any areas they choose. 


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