In Southeast Asia, there is a growing number of women rising through the ranks, starting companies and deciding on industry policy. Despite these achievements, women, especially mothers, still experience discrimination at work.
According to a survey by the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) in Malaysia, more than 40 percent of women in the workforce experience pregnancy discrimination. This discrimination includes denial of promotion, a prolonged probation period and a high likelihood of job loss.
Maternity protection is a fundamental right, and according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), virtually all countries have adopted legislative provisions on maternity protection at work. Pregnant working women are entitled to paid maternity leave, maternal and child health care and breastfeeding breaks.
In Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Singapore lead with the most maternity leave available for new mothers with 180 days and 112 days, respectively. Whereas Malaysia, although among the more developed countries in the region, provides the lowest maternity leave with only 60 days.
“Maternity leave is essential for a new mother as, after birth, she needs to take good care of herself to rebuild her strength and will need plenty of rest, good nutrition and help,” said M Kula Segaran, the former Human Resources Minister in Malaysia.
Discrimination And Dismissal
In addition to stipulated protective measures by the ILO, women are also protected against discrimination and dismissal in relation to maternity, and a guaranteed right to return to work after leave. However, women still get passed over for promotions, are side-lined and even fired for being pregnant.
In Indonesia, women are “targets of exploitation,” said Nining Elitos, chairman for the Congress Alliance of Indonesian Labor Unions, adding that despite the labour law, employers still refuse pregnant women maternity leave. Some employers even dismiss their pregnant women workers.
According to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), penalising women for having children, violates their human rights. The Convention specifically states that women have the right to have a family and work while being appropriately rewarded for it.
It is also discriminatory for a prospective employer to ask questions about a women’s marital status, pregnancy status, age or sexual orientation during job interviews. Based on the WAO’s survey, 40 percent of women were asked by interviewers about their pregnancy plans.
While more fathers are taking time off to look after their new-born babies, it is still a universal assumption that mothers are the ones who take care of the children. This assumption has continued to make stagnant any progress in increasing paternity leave, relegating it to only a few days for fathers.
Paternity leave encourages father-child bonding, which is essential for a child’s health. Mothers also benefit from paternity leave, through increased support and additional time for them to heal physically and emotionally after childbirth. Offering extended paternity leave also supports women’s attachment to the workforce, whose increased participation will benefit the overall economy.
Women are also subjected to baseless perceptions that they are not as good at their jobs after returning from maternity leave because they would not be as committed, would be unwilling to stay late, or would request additional time off.
“The capability of women professionals is often questioned once they take maternity leave, or have significant lapses in their career trajectories,” said Joanne Chua, account director at Robert Walters Singapore, a leading recruitment consultancy.
Companies and organisations must get rid of biases against women who take maternity leave to ensure they are fully empowered when they re-enter the workforce. Returning women represent a rich talent pool that can help to overcome skill shortages, increase diversity in the organisation and consequently provide measurable benefits such as decreased turnover rates and higher business gains. And women should not be made to choose between healthy ambition and child-rearing as both are rewarding.
The employment sector must identify with the needs of today’s working generation, where the quality of work and family can coexist.