Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., ​“We are made by history”;​ so it’s important that we touch base with the history of women’s rights in Malaysia for a firmer grasp on how we want to shape our future.

Ever since Malaysia gained Independence in 1957, girls and women in Malaysia have always had open access to education. However, it came with more constrictions and cultural rules, as compared to their male counterparts. Hence why women aimed for simpler positions such as clerks, typists, and teachers. Only in the 1970s did we start seeing girls courageously crossing the barrier, persevering, and proving the earlier stigmas wrong – that women were not suitable for “manlier” jobs involving technical education, engineering, or even court duty.

Regardless of women progressing in education, as well as the country developing more and more everyday, and in spite of the policies set by the government to support women’s entry and retention at the workforce, barriers such as lack of mentoring, stereotyping, and being excluded from networks still exists.

People across the world have many misperceptions about equality: we underestimate women’s experience of sexual harassment, and are overly optimistic about when economic and pay equality will be achieved. In reality, women in the Malaysian workforce still face unjust challenges every single day.

A ​survey done by Women’s Aid Organisation shows that up to 21% of women have encountered a form of sexual harassment, but many are still misinformed on what entails as sexual harassment in the workplace. Many still think that behaviours that their colleagues do, such as unwelcomed touching or grabbing, stalking or repeatedly making advances after being rejected, as “unprofessional behaviour”. Education on women’s safety and rights need to be boosted to ensure that women know that they are being treated respectably and just.

In June 2016, women accounted for only 15.2% of director positions in the top 100 listed companies on Bursa Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange). According to ​this study by the Human Resource Management Academic Research Society, 75% agree that the stereotypes about women’s abilities and roles still exist in the industry and 51.9% receive less mentoring than men in this industry. The ‘glass ceiling’, which still exists in most organisations, acts as the biggest barrier in women advancing in their careers.

The ‘glass ceiling’ refers to the invisible barriers that prevents qualified women from reaching their full potential within their company. Women are inclined to be over-represented in the junior level, but under-represented at the senior level in a company. It has resulted in a disadvantageous effect on the economy and morale of any organisation.

Unfortunately, there are many who still perceive women as weak, unable to carry out certain roles, or that women are only to play the “caring” roles in organizations. This phenomenon is also known as ​“Stereotype Confirmation Bias​”, and it happens when leaders confirm their stereotypes while filtering out all other examples. This adds on to the factor of discrimination.

According to a ​survey done by Women’s Aid Organisation, 56% of working women have experienced one or more types of gender discrimination at the workplace, including being asked personal questions regarding their marital or family status, being tasked to perform jobs that are not asked of men in the same position, receiving questions or comments about their ability to perform certain tasks, and being omitted from promotions even though their qualifications surpass the other candidates.

What To Do If You Encounter Discrimination?

If you feel that you are being discriminated against, there are many organisations that you may reach out to seek help. You can consider getting in touch with:

  • The Human Resource Department (who deals with internal grievances)
  • The Malaysian Labour Office
  • Your Trade Unions

The first thing to do would be to contact the Human Resource Department to find out about your company’s grievance processes. If the situation cannot be resolved internally, you may escalate it further to the labour office.

Although there has been significant progress in the representation of women in the workplace, women are still far from being seen as an equal. Katherine Davis, the former Managing Director of IPSOS in Malaysia said, “Where women are fully represented, societies are more peaceful and stable. Standing up for women’s rights and development is standing up for the global good”. We need to keep spreading awareness on this issue and keep talking about it in our conversations in order for real change to take place!

Although injustice and oppression have always existed, these events from the past week highlight how deeply rooted they are in our culture:

Discrimination is known as individual acts of prejudice (actions, words, thoughts), but it also involves the unseen social structures that prioritise your group (race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical/mental ability).

However, simply recognising that others are disadvantaged is not enough – one must acknolwedge their own privilege, but many are unable to do so because of unconscious oppressiveness. These feelings of distress and anger are a defensive reaction to unearned rewards and given dominance. But being privileged does not necessarily mean that you have it easy – it means that your life has not been hard because of the community you’re apart of.

This is why we need to step up as allies – an ally is someone who is willing to use their position to help others. It requires constant awareness and mindful actions, which amplifies those you’re trying to support rather than speaking on behalf of them. Here’s how you can become an effective ally:

Consider the different types of privilege that have brought you benefits – what opportunities have you received that others have been deprived of? For example, being able to rent a room because of your race or not having to worry about getting sexually harassed when going for a run. It’s not going to be easy – you may feel embarrassed, guilty and frustrated, but this honesty is also needed for us to grow as individuals.

Talk to your friends and family, read articles and books, watch documentaries and movies – try get a better understanding of what others are going through. You’ll make mistakes (at the end of the day, you’re only human), but the most important thing is to take accountability. You have the responsibility to do better and be better.

Stop supporting organisations that spread hate or refuse to speak up on issues that affect the communities they profit off. Instead, donate to funds, endorse platforms and initiatives, sign petitions – and continue to after the media attention has died down.

It might seem easier turn a blind eye, but unacknowledged privilege is not only arrogant – it can be destructive too. Disapproving isn’t enough either, we need to actively speak up and acknowledge inequality because by staying silent – we are protecting the unfair system and those involved.