How Populist Policies Might Jeopardize Women’s Career Opportunities

How Populist Policies Might Jeopardize Women's Career Opportunities

Childbirth is one of the most psychologically and physically demanding human experiences, and the postpartum period is often associated with reduced vitality, increased vulnerability, anxiety, depression and trauma. Caring for a newborn is no walk in the park either.

As a mother of two adorable twin boys, I cannot imagine giving up the opportunity to stay at home and engage with my babies in their first weeks. It therefore goes without saying that I view a mother’s right to maternity leave as sacrosanct.

However, I am also a career woman. After leaving my former job as a Federal Counsel, I returned to legal practice, and am also involved in politics. Therefore, I have the opportunity to evaluate the new Employment (Amendment) Act 2022 from the point of view of a working mother.

When the government announced the amendments to the Employment Act 1955 which included a provision extending paid maternity leave to 98 days, I had mixed feelings.

Although I welcome and commend the good intentions that motivated this move, after looking at this policy in detail I cannot help but feel that something is amiss – have we considered the long-term impact of this policy on women’s career opportunities?

Longer maternity leave would inevitably lead to women in anticipation of labour being viewed by some employers as a “foreseeable risk” to overall workplace productivity.

With this new extended maternity leave provision in effect, women’s job prospects would become slimmer, given that business owners now have to consider the practicality of hiring someone who may eventually request for more than three months of paid leave and the resultant higher cost of employing women compared to their male counterparts.

How would they reconcile such a risk to the survival of their businesses?

For the few large companies that make huge profit margins, such risks can be adequately mitigated and managed. After all, they have a legion of highly competent and well-paid consultants, human resource managers and business development experts who can foresee all kinds of situations and adjust their resources accordingly.

But in Malaysia, SMEs are the backbone of our economy and account for 90% of all businesses.

I urge all of us to put ourselves in the shoes of SMEs, especially small businesses with less than 10 employees.

They do not have high profit margins, and usually run on very a tight cash flow with short cycles.

The Covid 19 pandemic has had a lasting negative impact on many businesses, many of which have to survive by stretching their cash flow through business loans and incentives. The emotional pressure is insurmountable.

How would we expect these struggling SMEs to afford longer paid maternity leave when they can barely spend money on essential tools to maintain their dwindling profits?

I know it is easy to assume that a good employer would not allow pregnancy to get in the way of supporting their female employees, but the fact is that given the current economic situation, most small businesses in Malaysia do not have the financial cushion to absorb the cost of extended maternity leave.

The prolonged absence of an employee on maternity leave not only significantly affects the operation and productivity of a small business, but often means that a replacement has to be hired, adding to already prohibitive costs.

A double whammy.

Thus, there is a very real possibility of three disastrous consequences:

  1. Many small businesses run the risk of going out of business
  2. Small and medium enterprises may not hire young female workers, in order to mitigate risks
  3. Production costs may go up – if businesses have to accept not only the costs that come with extended maternity leave for their female workers, but also incur additional costs to hire replacement workers, they may be left with no choice but to pass these additional costs on to their customers or clients.

It is therefore imperative that we look more closely at this policy to identify the core problems affecting women in the workforce.

It is not always merely about the length of the leave

It is sometimes about the ‘quality’ of the rest a woman takes after birthing.

I have always been a strong advocate of quality over quantity. I speak from experience when I say that a proper confinement period does wonders for the physical and mental well-being of both mother and child.

Quality confinement stays go a long way in reducing postpartum complications and building a strong mother-child bond by providing a distraction-free and supportive environment.

Rather than going for a dangerous quick ‘win” that acts more like a double-edged sword, I believe that at this juncture, it is in the best interest of society for the government to explore avenues to create high quality confinement opportunities with more accessible childcare support systems.

For example, former Prime Minister Dato’ Ismail Sabri had announced compulsory childcare facilities in government offices earlier this year.

This framework should be immediately replicated in the private sector through financial intervention by the government so that new mothers can manage their separation anxiety more easily, knowing that their babies are well cared for nearby.

We should also learn the lessons of the pandemic. Through digital tools and flexibility in the workplace, allowing young mothers to work from home could be one of the many solutions.

Also, the government needs to think about breaking the mould; encourage the acceptance of the stay-at-home dad. A balancing transition can be initiated in a healthy way where men who choose to contribute as a homemaker should be celebrated, and not humiliated. The child is after all the responsibility of both parents. While the Employment (Amendment) Act 2022 introduces the concept of paid paternity leave, a commendable first step, it is limited to a mere 7 days under Subsection 60FA, and comes with a lot of preconditions.

Homemaking is an honourable and exhausting job, and in the 21st century, where we are guided by an ideal of equality, fathers should presume to share childcare responsibilities with their wives.

We must not give in to populism when we know that everyone risks ending up on the losing side.

I therefore appeal to both sides of the political divide to rethink this policy and tackle the root of the problem: poor quality childcare, rigid working conditions, and an outdated patriarchism that discriminates against men who are enthusiastic about becoming stay-at-home dads.

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