Malaysia’s shocking gender pay gap

ON December 16, “MWGF: The Review” aired on Astro Awani, featuring exclusive interviews with Women, Family and Community Development Minister Nancy Shukri, former deputy law and institutional reform minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Ramkarpal Singh, academicians and civil society representatives. It set out to assess the country’s progress since the pandemic in advancing women’s and girls’ rights.

The show comprised a series of boardroom-style interviews with guest panellists covering three main areas of discussion – the economic empowerment of women, legislating gender equality and comprehensive sexuality education, gender norms and awareness.

Its main objective was to examine progressive policy actions taken since the first annual Malaysia Women and Girls Forum (MWGF) was launched in 2020, while highlighting existing economic, social and legal gaps that continue to keep Malaysia’s women and girls from achieving their full potential.

As highlighted by the guest speakers, over the last three years, Malaysia has taken several positive steps towards women empowerment, including the introduction of landmark legislation against sexual harassment and stalking, the long-awaited introduction of seven-day paternity leave in Peninsular Malaysia, and steady efforts of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry in holding anti-sexual harassment roadshows in multiple states around Malaysia.

Alarming increase in gender pay gap

However, on December 13, just days after the production of “MWGF: The Review” concluded, the Statistics Department (DOSM) released shocking data that required a full reevaluation of our understanding of the economic equity of women in Malaysia.

DOSM reported that in 2022, women on average made a total income of only RM42,080, compared with men’s RM63,117. In other words, for every RM100 in salaries and wages received by men, women only received RM66.67. This means in 2022, women on average made 33.33% less than men per year. This is a whole third less than men – an appallingly large gender pay gap (GPG).

This is also a significant leap in figures from the year before.

In 2021, DOSM recorded that for every RM100 in salaries and wages received by men, women received RM96.21 – 3.79% less than men, close to parity. Pre-pandemic, for every RM100 a man made in 2019, a woman would make RM94.07, or roughly 5.93% less.

Source: Statistics Department

Why is there such a large jump in the 2022 GPG? Has there been a methodological change in the calculation of wages? If so, does this mean that all this time, Malaysia’s GPG has been far more severe than originally thought? Our data forms the very basis for informed policy action. How can we make meaningful progress in addressing economic equity, and by extension, gender equality, if our metrics of measurement fluctuate so dramatically?

The United Nations estimates the GPG to be about 20% globally, and with Malaysia’s latest GPG at 33%, this should set off alarms. The government has expressed its commitment to achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030, but our startlingly high GPG could be a huge setback.

We must prioritise closing this gap – and urgently. Unequal access to economic power leads to unequal access to resources and opportunities for women, thus limiting their agency and potential. Wage inequality also contributes to lower savings and Employees Provident Fund contributions for women, exacerbating female poverty in old age. Without equal economic opportunity, there can be no gender equality.

Immediate solutions towards gender equality

We can look at New Zealand as an example, as it is in the process of introducing a mandatory pay gap reporting system to reduce wage gaps affecting women and indigenous groups. In the United States, the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 60 years ago led to a 40% improvement in closing the wage gap.

We can also address income inequality by ensuring the burden of unpaid care work is shared more equitably between men and women through the introduction of equal parental leave. This can help keep women in the workforce and reduce career gaps, a major factor driving unequal pay. As it stands, the Malaysian female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) is still only 55.8%, in contrast with men at 81.9%. Targeted government support of female entrepreneurs can help increase their incomes and therefore their economic agency, leading to positive effects on the Malaysian economy as a whole.

The government has set a target of increasing the FLFPR to 60%, and to achieve this, it is vital to bring together every relevant agency and ministry, guided by an economic road map and gender mainstreaming that addresses all gaps, requirements and investments essential to unlock the economic potential of women. This monumental undertaking to ensure women’s economic equity cannot be steered by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry alone; it requires equal stewardship from the Economy Ministry.

Equal citizenship rights for Malaysian women

From a legal perspective, more can be done to protect the rights of Malaysian women. Our nation can never truly achieve gender equality if women have to fight for rights already enshrined for decades within the constitution for Malaysian men.

As highlighted in “MWGF: The Review”, Malaysian mothers with non-Malaysian spouses should have the right to automatically confer citizenship to their overseas-born children – just as Malaysian men with non-Malaysian spouses have always been able to.

It is not a banal legal issue, as it puts to question whether the government of the day wants to maintain the status quo of women as second-class citizens in their own country – thus making it impossible to achieve the 2030 SDGs, not to mention negatively impacting Malaysia’s international standing when it comes to being able to speak on human rights issues in other countries.

Lumping together the issue of equal citizenship for the overseas-born children of Malaysian mothers with other legal amendments that negatively affect the status of stateless children in Malaysia is bewildering.

The way forward is clear – the Madani government must decouple the equal citizenship law from other amendments on the protection of stateless people’s rights, ensuring the former passes on its own. As for the latter, the government should take the time to study costs and benefits on its own terms – acknowledging them as separate from the conversation on Malaysian women’s fundamental rights.

We are just six years away from 2030 – the target year for the attainment of the SDGs. Although significant gaps remain, the Malaysian government has demonstrated political will over the last three years in passing key laws that affect the wellbeing of women and girls. Six years is not very long – which is why we need even more targeted and sincere investment by the government and society to ensure Malaysian women are equal citizens who have equal rights to opportunity, wellbeing and dignity. – January 16, 2024.

* Tehmina Kaoosji is MWGF secretariat head.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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