In response to the recent findings by the National Statistics Department of a widening gender wage gap in Malaysia, Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan was quoted as saying that women may be paid less than men because men usually have more years of experience adding that women are more likely to stop working when they become mothers or to take care of aging parents.
While gender-wage bias remains a live issue in Malaysia, gender equality in the work place could very well start at the most unlikely place – paternity leave.
Under the Malaysian Employment Act 1955, every female employee regardless of wages is generally entitled to paid maternity leave for a minimum of sixty consecutive days. Fathers have unfortunately been left out of the legislation as there is no statutory paternity leave in Malaysia.In the private sector, while some companies offer paid paternity leave as part of their policy, such entitlements do not tend to be significant and are usually between the range of 1-3 days, and requiring new fathers to take unpaid leave or to use annual leave for additional time off. Malaysian civil servants fare slightly better as paternity leave entitlements can range from 7 to 14 days.
The situation in Malaysia is in stark contrast to other countries which are moving towards a more gender-neutral paid parental-leave system, where parents are given a shared amount of paid parental leave to divide amongst themselves as they see fit. For example, Sweden has also been progressively adjusting its parental leave entitlements to encourage more fathers to utilize this leave – in 1995, the “daddy month” was introduced whereby families would receive an additional month to add to their total allowance provided both parents took at least one month of leave. Today, Sweden allows 480 days of parental leave which can be split between both parents. Moreover, in neighbouring Singapore, every father is entitled to one week’s government funded paternity leave upon their child’s birth.
Supporters of the shared parental leave system argue that it has an indirect positive effect on women and their careers: when fathers are incentivized to share responsibility for child rearing, mothers can spend less time out of the work place.If Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan’s comments are to be taken at face value, better paternity leave benefits for Malaysian fathers should play a part in closing the gender wage gap since it could facilitate a quicker return to the workplace for mothers.
“Parenting is the responsibility and privilege of both father and mother. I believe many fathers these days want to be more hands on and involved but unfortunately don’t have the corresponding benefits / flexibility at work” said one parent in response to being asked whether Malaysia should have more paternity recognition and benefits.
Another newlywed said that she “strongly feels that a man should have equivalent paternity leave as a woman. My husband would be really happy because I think there are times when the man wants to and can be better at taking care of a child and men these days are more interested in the home and their children, just that the work environment does not encourage or permit that. Further, women who have just given birth are recuperating and men should be able to use paternity leave to care for the child in that time”.
As gender roles become less rigid, today’s modern father has the difficult task of straddling the expectations of being a financial provider and being more engaged in the home. However, all the paternity leave in the world will be useless if fathers are reluctant to utilize them due to outdated stereotypes of a father’s role as a breadwinner and not a caregiver.
Andy is a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur who took a month off from work when his son was born. “I would get remarks from my colleagues about how they wished they could ‘slack off’ like me. Apparently some people thought I was lazy for taking time off. I don’t think they would have said the same thing about a woman on maternity leave.” Andy’s comments are consistent with certain studies which found that fathers were often penalised in the workplace for taking a leave of absence from work for parental reasons. Fathers who go on paternity leave were less likely to be recommended for rewards, may get passed over for promotions, may be openly mocked as being “wimpy or henpecked”, or be seen as less competent at their jobs and receive lower performance ratings.
“The message to working fathers is clear… if you try to play an active role in family care, your career may suffer. Just as women are being policed out of breadwinning roles, men are being driven out of caregiving roles,” write Amy Cuddy and Joan Williams in their Harvard Business Review article “Will Working Mothers Take Your Company to Court?”
If one thing is clear, it’s that there isn’t a one stop solution that will lead to gender equality in the workplace. Gender equality has to be looked at holistically – after all, equality by its very definition should apply to both women and men.
This article was written by Donovan Cheah, partner of Donovan & Ho in collaboration with Office Parrots, an online platform for professional firms in Malaysia and Singapore to showcase their organizations for recruitment purposes.