Story and photo by Carolyn Hong
It may be a cliché but many clichés tend to carry nuggets of truth: women do have it harder in the workplace because of additional responsibilities such family duties, social expectations, inflexible work environments, and even because of their own personal beliefs around femininity.
“At all levels and ages, women do face unique issues especially at the workplace because this tends to be more structured towards men,” said lawyer Animah Kosai. “There is not enough support for women to deal with these issues.”
However, not being the kind of person to just wring her hands helplessly, Animah and a few friends got together to develop some solutions to these issues. She noted that solutions do not always have to entail major policy changes; sometimes it just takes some simple changes in perspectives and mindsets.
One of the solutions is to raise and discuss the issues openly, via a Facebook group called Surya Women, which was launched on International Women’s Day in March. The idea is for women to uncover and discuss challenges and solutions that are stopping them from moving forward such as by upgrading their skills.
Members can raise any issue. Animah’s particular focus is on sexual harassment in the workplace. This dovetails neatly with her second initiative where she has developed material on this topic for use in her company as well as for other groups. It began as part of her role as in-house counsel to explain the laws to the staff, and to design a company policy.
Animah said it was an eye-opening experience when she came across attitudes such as that women who dress sexily are asking to be harassed, or a sincere belief that a statement like “Is it that time of the month?” was acceptable.
Women, she noted, also often did not speak up in such cases and left the complaining to be handled by their husbands or boyfriends. Often, this stems from social fears.
But Animah noted that even in non-confrontational situations, women tend to hold back. She said women, for instance, are often reluctant to sit at the main table at a meeting even if they are key team members.
“The main difference between men and women is that women tend to doubt themselves more, and hold themselves back by this doubt. Women are often brought up not to show off,” she said.
Her observations about women’s reticence motivated her to start her third initiative – the launch of two support groups as avenues for women to talk about these issues.
Adopting the ”Lean In” concept popularised by Facebook’s former chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, Animah said her group comprises eight women from different industries and different levels of seniority who meet every month.
She hoped that these small initiatives would help open up deeper conversations and nudge Malaysians towards changing mindsets. Perhaps, in the near future Malaysians will start seeing nursing rooms in the office as well as flexi-hours for both parents to manage childcare.
“Women can really bring a lot to the workplace but it’s not yet being utilised,” she said. “So many talented women have left.”
There is no need to wait for change, according to Animah. It’s possible to start making changes at the very basic level of changing people’s attitudes and this means women need to take up the challenge. They can lead the way to lobby for change, and initiate some of their own changes.
It could begin with something as simple as taking the lead seat at the decision-making table.