International Women’s Day: Embrace the new normal

By: Tan Sri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil – March 8, 2017

1 Dato' Sri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil UMNO

I REMEMBER the day of the cabinet, as it was then, when I brought up the need to amend Article 8(2) of the Malaysian Constitution to ensure that there shall be no discrimination based on gender. It was in 2001.

I was new to the cabinet, which was made up of all the formidable personalities. Truth be known, I had butterflies in my stomach. But, I had made up my mind that I was going to fight for it. I had armed myself with all the facts, figures and precedents to justify my case.

Coming from a legal background, I saw a crying need for the amendment. It would be a game-changer and the beginning of a whole new era of gender parity in Malaysia.

I expected fireworks. There were none. Every member of the cabinet agreed to the amendment. I was floored. In that moment, I knew there was hope in this country for women to reach for the stars. Everything said and done, I can conclude that our men are with us women, on our journey towards gender equality and justice. However, we must fight our battles with great wisdom.

Since 2001, we have made strides in the development and empowerment of Malaysian women. Women now are the majority in higher education institutions at close to 70 per cent. More women are in decision-making positions in the public and private sectors. Maternal health has improved and we have many successful women in business. The female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) has also improved from 46.8 per cent in 2001 to 54.1 per cent in 2015, as well as many other achievements.

All of the above are possible thanks to the government’s conscious investments in women’s social, economic and political development, including women’s healthcare.

While we can take pride in these achievements, there remains a lot to be done. It is crucial that we increase our representation in Parliament, state assemblies and political offices.

This deserves a book of its own. FLFPR is still very much lower than our neighbours in the region. Singapore’s FLFPR, for instance, is 60.4 per cent, while Thailand’s is 70 per cent. We must arrest female retreat from employment. We must push ahead without apologies for an ecosystem which is family-friendly to enable women to work in offices or at home while tending to their share of domestic responsibilities.

Issues, such as childcare centres and caregiving for the elderly, maternity and paternity leave, flexible hours, equal pay and the like, are not to be twiddled with.

On this day, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s elevate the women’s agenda to a whole new level. Women are a formidable force in any democratic system. Women’s issues do not exist in isolation. They are interconnected with the nation, environment and economy as a whole. We must see women’s agenda of today in the national and global context.

The way forward should be framed in how to empower and propel women to thrive in all areas. Increasing women’s participation in politics, entrepreneurship, corporate world, and science and technology remains a work in progress. In the meantime, we must encourage and equip women to be more innovative to remain competitive.

We must find the solutions to the following questions: How do we address the shortage of women in the above mentioned areas? How do we break down the significant barriers for women to participate in male-dominated fields? But we should also start thinking about the following questions: How do we instil a creative and innovative mindset among women? How can we groom women to grow their businesses into corporations that can break into the global market?

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day — “Be Bold for Change” — is apt for so many reasons. It calls for a shift in mindsets, not only of society, but the women themselves. Sadly, entrenched gender stereotypes — that women are only suitable for nurturing and supporting roles, not for leadership — are held by men and women alike. Studies show that women often underestimate their abilities compared with men. This must change.

Certain gender roles are no longer relevant in this day and age.

Today, we have a significant number of our men who are secure, confident and want the best for women. All women, too, must realise that they have great potential. All women are leaders. Be confident of our abilities to lead and succeed. Come forth. Be bolder and more visible. Don’t be afraid to take up new challenges. Don’t be afraid to grow and push frontiers. Leverage digitalisation and network economy to empower and propel ourselves further. Women organisations should not work in silo and should find ways and means to collaborate for the good of women and nation. The emergence of new organisations, such as Lean In and Lead Women, bring women non-governmental organisations to a whole new level.

The government is collecting views, particularly from the young, in shaping the 2050 National Transformation (TN50). Let’s take this opportunity to shape Malaysia into a land where women thrive and prosper, free from barriers or discrimination. TN50’s blueprint must be inclusive of all subgroups of women, be it working mothers, single women, entrepreneurs, women in politics, professionals, urban women, rural women, housewives or the disabled.

TN50 must meet different needs and address different challenges. 2050 shall be the great era for Malaysian women. With new challenges, we need new targets and goals to move forward.

In 2050, I envision more Malaysian women as corporate giants and political heavyweights. I want to be proud to name innumerable female icons in science and technology, indeed, even in religion.

To achieve the above, the groundwork must be laid now. Recognising that the country cannot progress as an innovation-based economy if the women are not innovative, the prime minister had announced the setting up of a Women in Innovation Academy in the Prime Minister’s Department during the 2014 Budget speech. This academy is now known as MyWIN Academy, which I am chairing. Its mission is timely — as an avant garde institution fostering innovative and creative mindsets among women to breed a new generation of female leaders in various fields. Ultimately, MyWIN’s higher purpose is to unleash the power of women as the country’s engine of growth. And yes, as women are half of the population, innovation will be powered by women.

The country cannot afford to leave its women behind as it races ahead in a challenging and competitive global environment. We must build a new normal where men embrace their partnership with women. The new normal, where men and women build a greater nation together. The new normal, everybody holding hands and reaching for the stars.

Happy International Women’s Day!

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