We should perhaps explore more flexibility in how we employ women in the knowledge workforce in sectors such as academia as well as research and development fields.

FOR the past year, news of rampant sexual harassment from the hills of Hollywood and the start-ups of Silicon Valley to the halls of academia have been making their rounds in the headlines. Although in some cases, the targets of the harassments were men, the majority were women.

It seems that even the most prestigious of institutions have been affected. In fact, this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has also been cancelled because of a sexual harassment and abuse scandal. Unfortunately, such incidents also occur in Malaysia as evident in some recent headlines. It is tragic that those in respected positions have abused their influence to adversely affect the careers of their subordinates when their role should have been as a mentor and not a predator. However, my intention is not to discuss such a bleak topic. What I would like to do is to focus on something that I hope is a cause for celebration; a lining of silver for the dark clouds that have gathered, perhaps a sign of better days to come.

The rampant global sexual harassment in various sectors makes it clear that despite being important members of the workforce, women are still regarded as perhaps being out of place when in the work environment. In science and academia, the first female winner of the Nobel Prize was Marie Curie – who was awarded the honour in 1903, when the prize was only in its third edition. Marie’s daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, was also awarded a Nobel in 1935 thus making them the only mother-daughter pair to have done so.

With the capability of women in western science, one would have thought that they would be seen by their male peers as equals. Unfortunately, this is not always so. Many western institutions are still perceived to practise discrimination when it comes to salaries and leadership opportunities involving female academics.

I used the word “perceived” not because I am ignoring that the problem exists, but because of the results reported by several studies in the United States. These studies have found that female scientists publish less in the top journals and are able to secure less top research funding and for these reasons, many of the institutions rationalise that they are therefore ranked lower in terms of merit and thus command lower salaries and leadership opportunities.

However, none of these studies were able to determine why the merit and productivity of women academics are lower than those of their male colleagues. These studies do point out that there may be an element of unintentional gender discrimination at play as well; biases that are unconscious on the part of those committing them. Nevertheless, gender-based discrimination against female researchers does appear to exist.

Throughout the world, female researchers are under-represented. However, the situation in Malaysia is quite different where almost half of all the researchers are female. The United Nations has acknowledged Malaysia to be a world leader in encouraging girls and women to participate in science. The percentage of Malaysian female researchers is higher than that of Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, United Kingdom and Japan.

In general, most Malaysian researchers are from the government sector while many research institutions in the developed countries are privately run and at times operate independently from a centralised civil service system. To my knowledge, the Malaysian civil service in general does not practise salary discrimination nor does it implement a policy of opportunity discrimination save for a few select posts such as specific units in the military and perhaps posts such as the imams of mosques.

Most Malaysian researchers are in the civil service, so the gender pay gap does not exist. So although we are doing something right, we need to improve existing practices. This is perhaps where we must tread carefully. I do not believe that merely calling for gender equality is the solution to the problem. Men and women are clearly different and by calling for equality, we are not appreciating the facts of their different roles in society.

Men do not take maternity leave. However, gender equality implies that they should also be given at least equality in terms of paternity leave. Do men make better employees because they do not take months of paternity leave such as their female colleagues? Definitely not. But if policies and laws are in place to allow for very long paid maternity leaves, employers may unintentionally discriminate against women candidates simply because not all employers will be able to afford such an expense.

Being able to afford is not necessarily only a context in the monetary sense. For example, several posts may be crucial that there must be redundancy in case of leave. If one post in a redundant pairing is already held by a female employee of child-bearing age, then the employer may intentionally discriminate against a female candidate of similar age by giving the vacant post to a possibly less qualified male candidate.

Many female employees are mothers and wives for whom every day is an incredible juggling act to provide not only the best to their employers, but also to give the best attention, care and love to their families. At times, the policies in place do not allow for a suitable balance thus forcing a choice between work and the family. I suspect in such a situation, many will choose the family over work.

The issues to contend with are clearly deeper than just gender equality. The current government is on the right track in trying to provide childcare facilities in government departments. But we must go beyond that. Mothers should be allowed extended maternity leave if desired to bond with their newborns. In such cases, how can employers retain them as contributing members of their respective organisations?

At a time when the country requires all its professional and knowledge workers in the drive towards developed nation status, we definitely cannot afford the losses when these human capital decide to resign to become full-time mothers. We should perhaps explore more flexibility in how we employ women in the knowledge workforce in sectors such as academia as well as research and development (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields.

For example, civil service salaries and employment contracts can perhaps be negotiated based on hours worked, not necessarily the standard five days or nine to five work-day. Other ways of financial compensation to consider are project- or milestone-based achievements. Extended maternity leave can perhaps be supplemented by work from home input. Return-to-work schemes should also be introduced for mothers who had opted for extended maternity and childcare leave. Obviously there are multiple factors that can even vary between individuals and therefore should not be generalised.

In order to achieve optimal productivity from the female knowledge workforce, we should take steps to better appreciate their roles in society as well as their contributions as high value employees. We must perhaps first accept that this appreciation cannot be served merely by calls for gender equality in the workplace.

The writer is a bioinformatician and molecular biologist with the Faculty of Science and Technology and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Systems Biology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Email him at [email protected]