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(File pix) Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak tabling the 2018 Budget at Parliament last Friday. Pix by Mohamad Shahril Badri Saali

BUDGET 2018 offers many reasons for women to celebrate. One reason is the declaration of the year 2018 as Women Empowerment Year by Prime Minister and Finance Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, when tabling his 10th budget for the country. Not many people get that much of attention in a national budget, but women did. Najib went further, too. He directed all government-linked companies (GLCs) and statutory bodies to allot 30 per cent of board membership to women. Little wonder Najib called it the “Mother of all Budgets”.

Women are half of humanity, but in Malaysia, women make up 14 per cent of board membership, according to a survey by Deloitte, which tracked gender diversity on boards in 44 countries. While the percentage is low in global terms, the number still tops the list in Asia. In the advanced economy of Japan, only four per cent of board members are women, while in similarly developed South Korea, it is a mere 2.5 per cent. But, Malaysians cannot just pat our backs. More work needs to be done, at least by women for women.

In this context, Najib’s commitment to gender equality in the public and private sector is laudable.

Encouraged by Najib’s interest in seeing women play a greater role in the development of the nation, this writer would like to advance a few ideas for the consideration of policymakers with regard to Malaysian women’s participation in the nuclear industry.

We all remember Marie Curie for her groundbreaking research on radioactivity. The pioneering effort of this physicist and chemist eventually led to the discovery of polonium and radium. She also had the distinction of being the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and a further distinction of winning the Nobel twice — perhaps, still the only woman to have done so. Curie was instrumental in laying the foundation for nuclear physics, and ultimately, the nuclear industry. Curie’s discovery offers women not only encouragement, but also hope, at least in the field pioneered by a woman of distinction.

Notwithstanding the fact that the nuclear industry was initiated by a woman, it remains a male-dominated field, with only 20 per cent of the workforce represented by women. Just a small number of countries have more than 20 per cent of women in this under-represented sector. Even in an advanced economy like the United Kingdom, women make up only between 11 and 24 per cent of the nuclear workforce. In the nuclear industry only eight women hold board positions out of 100 positions available.

Closer to home, the scenario is bleaker, but rays of hope are appearing. Najib’s leadership is giving women some generous space, both in the public and private sector. Consider this. Malaysia has a woman minister in the person of Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri with the portfolio of Nuclear Power Planning in the Prime Minister’s Department and is responsible for Malaysia’s Nuclear Energy Planning and Implementation Organisation and the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC).

The chairmanship of MNPC’s Board is also steered by a distinguished woman. The regulatory agency has more than 30 per cent women in senior management position, but no representation on the board. In Nuclear R&D Agency although more than 20 per cent of the nuclear workforce are women, there is no woman represented at top management positions.

An urgent first step would be to enhance women’s participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. In Budget 2017, Najib declared that women are the backbone of the nation’s development. To continue to ensure that women remain so, the government needs to encourage female students to pursue STEM education. Only in this way can we produce more Dr Mazlans (Dr Mazlan Othman, the Malaysian astrophysicist who has served as director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna from 2010-2014 and who paved the way for women in STEM) and Nur Adlyka Ainul Annuar, 27 (PhD astrophysics student who discovered the evidence of a massive black hole).

By 2020, when Malaysia reaches developed nation status, the country is expected to have 1.3 million STEM workers. It is hoped at least half of them will be women.

In order to operationalise and manage the roadmap of women’s participation in nation-building strategically, a comprehensive data bank is needed. Otherwise it will just be occasional blips in the national radar. The only way to empower women and to know that we are empowering them is through data. Nothing speaks more eloquently than statistics. This we must build, field-by-field, company-by-company and industry-by-industry. It is a national effort. The prime minister has shown the way; we, both men and women of this country, must pave the road. The road may be long and winding, but at least we will get ourselves there.

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Sheriffah Noor Khamseah Al-Idid is a Member, Women in Nuclear Global, Innovation & Nuclear Advocate, Alumni Imperial College and author of books in Technological Innovation and Women & Innovation - The UK Experience.

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