Malaysia’s ‘iron ladies’ lead in finance
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Malaysia’s ‘iron ladies’ lead in finance

From Malaysia’s central bank to its largest commercial bank, women are at the helm — and they are actively working to promote the next crop of female leaders.

One of the hurdles for a women starting out in their careers is finding suitable role models. But that is not quite as tough in Malaysia, where multiple women have risen to positions of real power.

Mohaiyani Shamsudin has served as chairwoman of Maybank since 2017. The central bank of Malaysia has been headed by Nor Shamsiah binti Mohd Yunus since 2018, although Zeti Akhtar Aziz, who led Bank Negara Malaysia from 2000 until 2016, was the first woman to take on that position.

Nor is it just in finance where women have risen to prominence. Wan Azizah binti Wan Idora became the first female deputy prime minister of Malaysia in 2018, serving for two years before the country’s political merry-go-round led to another change in government.

These women are emblematic of progress of gender equality in Malaysia – and have been inspirational to many other women in the country.

“The present central bank governor and her predecessor [Aziz] were role models for a lot of us – [showing] that you are able to achieve and not compromise your values,” says Masliza Sulaiman, head of capital markets, group treasury and markets, at CIMB Investment Bank in Kuala Lumpur.

The change in the country over the last couple of decades has, in big part, been thanks to a government push. Malaysia’s government said in its 2020 budget that maternity leave would increase to 90 days from 60, as of January 1, 2021. The policy announcement also revised procedures for companies handling sexual harassment complaints, giving individuals more protection.

The government also added benefits for female workers, including as a one year tax exemption for women returning to work after career breaks.

This level of support is a welcome change.

Nora Manaf, group chief human capital officer at Maybank, has worked in Hong Kong, London and Indonesia, as well as in native country of Malaysia. When she returned to Malaysia in 2008, the country did not have many of the policies in place that she had got used to outside of the country.

But the changes since then are noticeable. “I was initially quite disappointed that we were quite behind in some of the programmes,” says Manaf. “[But] we’ve come very far.”

As of the second quarter of 2019, Malaysia’s female labour force participation rate was 55.8%, according to the country’s department of statistics. The highest participation, 73%, came from the 25-34 year old age group, followed by 67.6% of 35-44 year olds and 62% of 45-54 year olds.

With women representation in the workplace growing, so too has the number of women in corporate leadership positions.

The 30% Club

In May 2015, then-prime minister Najib Razak launched the 30% Club in Malaysia. The organisation, which was started in the UK in 2010, aims to have more women on corporate boards. Ultimately, the initiative hopes that local talent will be promoted to senior positions in corporations regardless of gender. But in the near term, the Malaysia chapter aimed for 30% female representation on the boards of publicly-listed companies by the end of 2020.

Raja Teh Maimunah.jpg
Raja Teh Maimunah, AmBank Group

Progress has already been made. According to index provider MSCI, 25.3% of total director seats in Malaysia were held by women in 2019, up from 15.3% in 2016. All of the 43 Malaysian companies on the MSCI ACWI Index, the all-country world index that tracks the equity performance of about 3,000 companies globally, had at least one woman on the board, and 37.2% of the companies had three or more women.

The finance industry has also seen change. More women have been able to break into finance in recent years, creating a strong pipeline for Malaysia’s future board members and leaders in the sector, says Mia Idora Ismail, head of Malaysia coverage, investment banking and capital markets, at Credit Suisse.

She reckons Malaysia will be able to hit its target for having more women on corporate boards fairly easily. As the first generation of women leaders begins to retire, countless more are ready to climb the corporate ladder and replace them, says Idora.

The 30% idea was not without controversy when it was introduced, as some were against the use of quotas to promote equality. But people have been happy with the results.

Sulaiman notes that the addition of diversity on boards has been a boon for Malaysia, and it has allowed long serving female bankers to take on a new position. “It would have been a waste of talent and experience if they had not been given an opportunity [to sit on a board],” says Sulaiman.

The level of female participation at banks is still not perfect, of course. Manaf says that “we have to keep an eye on the disparity of pay between men and women [and] the lesser representation of women in some areas of banking”.

“In a male-dominated industry, more so in management positions, you have to work a little harder to be recognised.”
Masliza Sulaiman, CIMB Investment Bank

But Malaysian banks have played an important role in furthering changes for women in the country, reckons Manaf. For instance, banks led the charge to increase the minimum paid maternity leave to 90 days in 2017. “I think that shocked the country,” says Manaf.

When Raja Teh Maimunah, managing director for wholesale banking at AmBank Group, had her first child in 1996, companies did not provide much in the way of maternity leave or support.

“When I had my first child, I was still working in the wee hours of the morning,” she says. But Maimunah’s managers allowed her to bring her newborn into the office (perhaps making her baby the youngest IPO banker in history).

But although changing maternity leave is a significant policy move, Malaysia, like many other places around the world, still suffers from the hurdle of getting women back to work after their maternity leave.

Fighting prejudice

All the women Asiamoney interviewed pointed to the support they had from family as well as domestic staff, including nannies, as the reason they were able to stay in banking. The affordability of domestic help makes a large difference in southeast Asia, says Maimunah.

Multi-generational homes are also common in the region, meaning grandparents are often at home to help with children as well.

But attitudes about women needing to be at home or leave work early to care for children are changing. Credit Suisse’s Idora says that perceptions she saw in the past – such as that women may not want to work on time-consuming projects or that male colleagues have better networks with senior management – have changed.

“We are breaking that glass ceiling. We are entering that world,” says Idora. Women are now less likely to be patient about waiting for a promotion or expecting their successes to be seen, she says.

That ability to balance work and home life is a skill that serves women well, although it is understated in the employment market, says CIMB’s Sulaiman.

“One thing that isn’t said enough is that women are good managers and excellent multi-taskers,” she says. She thinks it is important to recognise that working mothers are excellent at managing multiple projects, have significant stamina and are strategic problem solvers.

When it comes to moving past the middle management level, Sulaiman and Manaf both say that assertiveness is necessary. Being quiet is not an option, says Sulaiman. “In a male-dominated industry, more so in management positions, you have to work a little harder to be recognised,” she says.

To rise up the ranks, women have to stand out in some ways. “For you to get into that level, you have to be super confident,” says Manaf. “You have to speak your mind more than the average woman.”

Women also still need to challenge old prejudices.

“Although the majority of corporate figures are gender neutral, there are still a few who prefer to engage [with] male counterparts and take the view that men can express more substance in a conversation,” says Sulaiman.

But it should not only be the “iron ladies” that get promoted, says Manaf. Such standards keep the upper echelon of banks looking the same, gender aside, and ultimately limit the pool of female applicants.

“If you keep doing the same things, it’s the same things and people that get noticed,” says Manaf. “Just because I’m a little more timid doesn’t mean I’m not as good as the person who speaks her mind.”

Maimunah says that some women need to be encouraged to take on new responsibilities. Some feel unqualified, others don’t like sharing their opinions in a group setting and yet others don’t want to take on senior roles because they’re afraid of emasculating their husbands, she says.

“A lot of women question their abilities,” says Maimunah. “When you ask for a volunteer, the guys will always say ‘oh I’ll do it’.”

What’s still missing in Malaysia are women sponsors and advocates, both male and female managers, to identify talent and make sure women are considered for promotions when they come up.

“There isn’t enough of that,” says Manaf. “That needs to be worked on — being actively sponsored for the right reasons.”

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