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The Truth About The Gender Gap In The Modern Workplace


Women have a harder time accessing work globally than previously thought, while the gender gap in working conditions and pay has barely budged in two decades, the United Nations said Monday.

The UN’s International Labour Organisation said it had developed a new indicator that does a better job than official unemployment rates at capturing all people without employment that are interested in finding work.

We hear from E Hun Tan. Executive Director, Research for Social Advancement (REFSA) and discuss the hard truth: The gender gap at work is far worse than expected.


General statistics have shown that the gender wage gap has worsened in Malaysia. Global Gender Gap Index 2021 indicated that Malaysia scored 0.75 (where a score of 1 would equal fair pay), down from 0.81 between 2012 – 2015. Malaysia’s own Gender Gap Index published by DOSM shown that for every RM100 received by men, women receive RM96.21. Further our country’s women labour force participation rate is 55.5% compared to men’s 80.9%; and that only 11% of elected parliamentarians are women.
This is against the backdrop that the enrolment rate for women in education at all levels has been higher than men. Taken into context, the gender pay gap will continue to affect more women as they graduate and attempt to enter the workforce. E Hun stated that in a perfect world, pay would fairly renumerate someone based on their qualifications, experience, skill sets etc that translates into their existing work performance or productivity.  But in the real world, these are only few of many factors that play into how much women earn compared to their male counterparts. The existing wage gap manifests in multiple forms, (1) when do women enter the workforce (considerations of other commitments e.g. household duties) and once they do, (2) how do they confront gender bias at work. 

Even when women holds down a job, they also have to confront the cultural and societal expectations. E.g. Women are subconsciously expected to take on a heavier role or unpaid care work should crisis strike. Inadequate child care support will force many women to give up their work, and this in turn impacts their career trajectory, as it causes gaps in their work and impacts how much salary they can demand if and when they do return. During the pandemic, women were also disproportionately affected by job losses and displacements. 

There is currently no legal mandate for equal renumeration for work of equal value. E Hun shares that while the employment act generally treats both genders equally, it doesn’t explicitly mandate equal pay for the same work. While there have been small efforts to equalise this, such as increasing maternity leave, more can be done to ensure women are being paid equally and equitably.

E Hun acknowledges that there exists an asymmetrical relationship between employers and employees in Malaysia. There is a lack of visibility in what other people earn within the same company or industry. Many employees also do not know how to negotiate for a better salary. Challenges such as lack of worker unions and potential employers requesting for pay slips also act as deterrent for many to ask for increments in pay. This in turn causes women reentering the workforce after an absence difficulty in seeking higher pay, which also causes more difficulty for them to catch up to their counterparts.

Employers should aim for a mindset shift. One way is to look at the job itself and how much wages it commands in the market. Companies can also reveal the range of salary paid for a specific position. This helps women to be less conscious of asking for a pay raise, and show that their work is rated at their skills and not gender. More benefits can be explored too, such as flexible working hours and working location, to help women who has caretaker roles to remain within the workforce. 

An employee culture of empathy and psychological safety is important so women can feel safe taking leaves without feeling penalised or judged. They should also be supported to ensure that they’re not overlooked in pay or career advancement opportunities. Here the government can play an important role. E.g. in the United States, some states are legally required to reveal jobs’ salary range, thereby removing barriers for women requesting equal pay.

As for the broader socioeconomic implications of the gender pay gap, E Hun highlights two matters. Firstly, that women comprise of half of the population of Malaysia; more women labour force participation is ultimately more beneficial for the country in terms of economic contributions (more double household income families), higher productivity levels, etc. 

Socially, women should also receive equal opportunity to build their career and seek out work should they do so. Reducing the gender pay gap is important to ensure women entering the workforce are renumerated well, all of these added together presents untapped potential for the country’s economic development as it will also ensure a healthy competition for talent and skills. 

Lastly, it should be noted that the gender pay gap is a global issue; the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) recently stressed that the gender gap has remained unchanged for two decades, and in the post-lockdown environment women have suffered the most in income and opportunity to seek more jobs due to family commitment. More should be done to ensure an equal playing field and opportunities for our women.

Produced by: Richard Bradbury

Presented by: Richard Bradbury, Roshan Kanesan

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