Sunday, February 21, 2021

Pandemic reversing women’s contribution to economic growth

Post-pandemic workplaces will be majority-male if women are expected to work from home, and the economy will suffer.

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Shelly Mohamed and Suria Mahmood are both educated, accomplished professionals in their 40s, married, with late-teenage children.

They, like tens of thousands of other Malaysian working women, have seen their lives disrupted by the pandemic. Both have been working from home for the last seven months.

But the effect has been quite different for each of them, they tell MalaysiaNow.

Shelly, a marketing manager with a government-linked company, has adjusted well to working from home. While her entrepreneur husband takes care of the grocery shopping, Shelly finds time, amid multiple Zoom meetings with colleagues, to attend webinars and do workouts at home via virtual classes.

Suria, a tech equities specialist, is always exhausted. Her banker husband plays no active part in their domestic life. He doesn’t cook, clean, go grocery shopping or take any part in child-raising. She’s frank about where the reason for her fatigue lies: at home, not with her employers.

The pandemic has unexpectedly resurrected an issue many hoped had been relegated to history.

“For decades, women’s participation in the workforce was stuck at 45-48% until the government saw the importance of women as participants in the labour force.”

Workplaces will revert to being majority-male environments post-pandemic for the simple reason that when office jobs are scarce, women are still regarded as the ones who should be at home with a dripping mop in one hand and a baby on her hip.

The argument, in a report by LeanIn.org released last week, is that while the pandemic rages on with little hope of an early end in sight, it will entrench the idea of the woman tapping at Excel sheets on her laptop at the kitchen table, while a saucepan boils on the stove and the youngest wants to know when Daddy’ll be home.

The other danger is that employers will once again see women as “burdens” because they need to take leave for maternity and to attend to family matters.

Universiti Malaya professor of Gender Studies, Shanthi Thambiah, warns of long-term ripple effects on economic growth and wealth creation if Malaysian policymakers turn a blind eye to this pandemic-related phenomenon.

“Malaysian women make up 55% of the labour force,” she tells MalaysiaNow.

“For decades, women’s participation in the workforce was stuck at 45-48% until the government saw the importance of women as participants in the labour force.”

That participation is not a matter of chickenfeed.

According to one IMF analysis, from 2001 to 2008 female employment contributed just 4% to Malaysia’s economic growth, but from 2011 to 2016 the figure had jumped to 11%.

In short, until the pandemic, women in the workforce were significant drivers of economic activity and wealth creation in Malaysia, and if policymakers fail to acknowledge this after the pandemic, the downside may not be limited to an economy that is slow to restart.

Women’s overall contribution is not just a matter of the fact that women make up a significant proportion of cheap labour in Malaysia, which is no doubt part of the allure for foreign companies setting up factories here.

“Women are not homogeneous,” Shanthi says. “Women in the formal sector and the civil service are a privileged lot. Women down in the informal sector who have lost their employment in this pandemic are being pushed into domestic roles to do housework and care work.”

Shanthi emphasises that the responsibility of making sure that children stuck at home during the pandemic are still getting an education, falls on women, regardless of their employment situation.

“The more educated the woman, the more pressure on her to make sure her children are not only learning but also performing,” she says.

So, if pandemic-raised children are hindered in their learning because dads are not helping exhausted work-from-home mums, we may even see a generation of school-leavers ill-equipped to contribute to Malaysia’s future growth.

“This is a middle-class phenomenon,” Shanthi tells MalaysiaNow, “but in every economic crisis, including the 1997 Asian financial crisis, we see that the retrenchment of female workers is much higher than that of males, because society still sees men as the main providers.”

The pandemic, she says, is increasing that inequality.

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