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Does the glass ceiling still exist? We ask three high-ranking women in corporate

This IWD 2021, we explore the white elephant in the working environment: how to treat female employees as equals.

It’s undeniable that women have come a long way in the strive for gender equality. From being able to participate in politics to even being allowed to run in a marathon, our rights have improved in leaps and bounds. Yet, the fight isn’t over. Despite these advancements, there is a barrier we can’t seem to break — a glass ceiling that seems to be there, regressing our roles just ever so slightly.

In our final International Women’s Day feature of 2021, we ask Sherene Azli, a former CEO of Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), Jasmine Ng, the co-founder of Engame and former CEO at iPay88, as well as Feon Ang, vice president of Learning and Talent Solutions at LinkedIn APAC some questions on how they can make the workplace better for women. Does the glass ceiling still exist? Are women getting more equal opportunities in the workplace now, compared to before? What can employers do to ensure equity between all genders in the workplace? And finally, what can you, as a female employee, do to ensure that you’re not being taken advantage of at the workplace? There are no better people to answer these questions than these female CEOs who have undertaken high-ranking roles in the corporate workplace.

Feon Ang, vice president of Learning and Talent Solutions at LinkedIn APAC.

Malaysia’s workforce has taken a hit due to COVID-19 across the board, women included. According to our latest Opportunity Index report, lack of time is the top barrier for women today — likely due to having to juggle remote working and family responsibilities,” said Feon Ang. “We also know that women are seeking to get ahead in life, and want equal access to opportunity as men. As a society, we need to start changing our societal perceptions of gender. In our organisations, too, we need to level the playing field for women. When we succeed, the economy and our organisations succeed as well.”

Answers have been edited to be more concise.

(Hero & featured image credit: Marten Bjork)

As a female working in your industry, how has the work environment changed for women compared to 10 years ago?

Sherene Azli (SA): The work environment for women, in general, has evolved positively in the last 10 years. However, not at the rate that I had wished for, in terms of equity, empowerment, flexibility, balance and family-friendliness. For example, while organisations have warmed up to having more empowered women leading organisations, I observed remuneration gaps are still significant between genders. While equity between genders has been advocated actively, the “boys-club culture” still prevails in many big organisations like GLCs and MNCs. 

I believe in performance-driven, equitable work culture which is flexible, balanced and family-friendly, so I have been advocating a flexible working environment in my past organisations. I feel that taking care of the most important asset of any organisation – the people; so enabling a work-life balance, flexibility and family-centric culture – has seen more talented women attracted to our organisation, earning their places in top management by merit. They are happily working harder to deliver top results as they are at ease knowing that their family’s interests are not side-lined. I hope more organisations will be open to trusting their people with flexibility and not having to trade-off their family for their career progression. This will encourage more women to return to work, thereby reducing brain-drain and driving equitable women empowerment as well as participation in higher management. 

Jasmine Ng (JN): I have moved from the financial services industry into the tech side of things recently and it has been an amazing ride. In the banking and tech space, it is still very much male-dominated, but I am very encouraged to note that there has been progress over the last 10 years to empower women in the financial and tech start-up scenes. There are more avenues for women techpreneurs to obtain funding.  However, I am concerned that female participation in the tech industry has actually reduced over the years from the time Computer Science started back in pre-WW2 (World War 2).

Coming back to the last 10 years, whilst there have been a lot of growing movements for gender equality, women must make a concerted effort to engage and drive for equality wherever they may be in the workplace.

The glass ceiling in the workplace may have changed from 10 years ago compared to now. What, in your opinion, are the new challenges that women face at work?

SA: The glass ceiling still exists, albeit to a lesser extent. Women still have to work harder to earn their place — the “elephant in the room” that many still don’t want to admit. We still hear comments like: “Where are all the men?” whenever people walk into our women-dominated management meetings.

New challenges would be how women need to keep up with the demands of new technologies, like managing a faster working pace, adapting to the required, almost 24-hour multi-device access regardless of family-time, commitments, and so on. It’s almost as if we don’t have our personal lives anymore because technologies have made us accessible at all times. That’s our main challenge as daughters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers. I believe we need to balance these disruptions and interventions so that women can still have a fruitful career and yet ensure that the family and society don’t suffer from neglect. 

JN: The glass ceiling has thinned in certain areas, but it is still there and the women still need to push, still need to step up and break through this barrier. Compared to 10 years ago, there are more initiatives today, but there is also a perception that female representatives are appointed as the “token” woman on boards or in meetings. This is where I say to my sisters: it doesn’t matter if people think that way. What is important is the value we bring when we are present in those roles. It is absolutely vital that we continue to push the boundaries for other women to rise and take a seat at the table. 

Do you think in our modern times, women are getting more equal opportunities in the workplace?

SA: I would like to think so. The Malaysian Labour Force Survey 2019 conducted by the Department of Statistics (DOSM) showed that while more women enrolled for tertiary education (about 60% of enrollment), the Labour Force Participation Rate for women was only at 55.6%. The numbers dropped to less than 40% in middle management, with only 28% remaining at the top management and only 17% at the board level. Supporting this is Khazanah Research Institute’s The Malaysian Workforce: A Changing Landscape 2018 report, which clearly states that the gender gap is still apparent with pay disparity standing at more than 6%.

Many have argued that those women dropped out of work and shelved their career by choice — but have we really looked at why they chose to make that choice? While there may be a perception that there are “equal” opportunities for women to progress and have a successful career now, but at what cost? I would think equal opportunities must also come with the platform and ecosystem to enable it. For example, why do we have to make a career woman choose between her career and her family? That’s not equity nor equality, in my view. 

JN: We are getting a crack at equal opportunities in the workplace, but the “war” is far from being won, nor are we even close to winning, especially in the tech space. Let’s have a look at statistics in the US: 48% of women in STEM jobs report discrimination in the recruitment and hiring process.

Women aren’t paid the same as their male peers. In Silicon Valley, the median male makes 61% more than the median female. Women are awarded far less equity, as well. Minority women fare even worse, as the gender pay gap goes. It’s been reported that women who work in computer and mathematical fields earn 80 cents to the dollar that men earn doing the same job. Add that up: it amounts to $317 per weekly paycheck and $16,484 less per year. On a positive note, women’s earnings are outpacing those of men’s when it comes to high-skill jobs.

As a woman with a high position in your industry, how are you creating equal opportunities for women to grow in the career?

SA: I can’t stress enough the importance of building and creating an enabling eco-system to create a holistic concept of equal opportunity. Hence I have always structured my organisations to enable career women to be able to succeed in both family and career. Why is there a need to have sacrifices? Of course, there will be compromises and adjustments, but I don’t think sacrificing one for the other is necessary if we have the right enabling culture and platform. For example, if their child or parents are sick, why can’t they work from home while caring for them? Why do they have to take leave or still go to work, and feel some guilt? For me, equal opportunities mean much bigger than just presenting open opportunities without discrimination. It has to be about the whole ecosystem that is supportive of women building a career. 

JN: Coaching women to be confident, not be shy about their own abilities, and being vocal about it. This is not an Asian trait, but it is something that every woman will have to do to pave the way to greater equality for the next generation of women in the workplace. Of course, I believe we need to also approach the circumstances and situation with tact and diplomacy, so that while we are moving ahead, we are not causing a chasm between genders.

Providing equal opportunities for both genders to be given a job or assignment is something that I am very cognizant of. But then again, when I approach the matter of gender equality, I also understand that women carry a heavier role in the home environment where she is likely to be heavily involved in Unpaid Care Work. So, there is a balancing act there.

Can you give tips to employers on how they can create equal opportunities for women in THEIR workplace?

SA: First of all, the employer must be genuine in wanting to build equity for all at the workplace. For example, invest in understanding what it takes to be a successful career woman.

With the understanding of what really matters, then build an ecosystem that will enable them, not discredit them. Help to enable all the possible support systems on-site and off-site. 

Structure a strong performance-based culture with remote-monitoring and clear KPIs that can be measured. Remember: what can be measured, will get done. Vague KPIs will not drive the right attitudes. 

Use technology as an enabler. We have seen the workplace evolve during the COVID-19 period. Working from home (WFH) was not well-received before COVID-19, but I have personally been implementing WFH for the last 10 years in my last three organisations, in whatever limited capacity that we could. We still delivered exceptional results, with women-dominant teams (not by design, but by merit). 

Sincerely open equal opportunities for all and give credit where credit is due.

JN: It is very simple, but not easy:

  • Remove the gender barriers and look at women in the workplace as equal producers. 
  • Remove or minimise any gender pay gaps across all levels. 
  • Rethink your hiring policies and biases, so that similar considerations for a position apply to both men and women. 
  • Last but not least, ensure that the fundamentals of the workplace is as much for the man as it is for the woman. 
(Image credit: Unsplash/ Surface)

Conversely, for female employees, what can they do to ensure that they’re getting the most out of opportunities at their workplace?

SA: Despite the equal opportunities and the gender equity drives, the reality remains: it is still a very tough, vicious world out there for aspiring women. We need each other to cheer us on and to keep us strong. What I practice and what I preach to my colleagues is to always start with the correct intention. Have the determination to act and deliver what’s needed with the correct attitude. 

Drive the agenda by being part of an enabling culture and build each other up instead of pulling people down while climbing up the career ladder. Be part of a solution, not part of a problem. Continue to inspire each other towards success and always deliver our best, no matter the challenges and circumstances.

JN: As a woman in the workplace, do not think that you are any lesser than your male counterparts. Be confident that you are a producer, and make it known to your supervisors, that you know your worth. That you are not just a token female in the position you are in. Engage and be empowered in your role. 

If you are a woman in a higher position, please pave the way for younger and up-coming women in your organisation. Be that woman who helps other women. The men have their “boys’ club” so if the women do not look out for each other to improve our capabilities and capacities, we will never see the true equality that everyone deserves. 

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