Greater gender parity in the labour market is a direction Malaysia can take to achieve higher prosperity, inclusive growth and economic gains.

Over a week ago, the World Bank Group Global Knowledge and Research Hub in Malaysia released a new report entitled ‘Breaking Barriers: Toward Promoting Greater Economic Opportunities for Women in Malaysia’ under the auspices of Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

In her speech, she spoke of the immense responsibilities placed on the shoulders of women: “All around the world, women are laden with a ‘double burden’, that is, women participate equally in paid employment but spend a bigger proportion of their time on unpaid care work compared with men.”

These words serve as an important reminder for policymakers, employers and families alike about the importance of creating more economic enablers for women.

Greater gender parity in the labour market is more than a core development priority.

It is a direction Malaysia can take to achieve higher levels of prosperity and to make growth more inclusive.

Working toward these objectives could result in important economic gains for Malaysia.

The report offered new findings that quantify the effects of gender parity in economic participation.

Our estimates indicated that income per capita levels in the country could rise by 26.2 per cent over the long term if Malaysia succeeds in closing the gender gap — implying an average annual income gain of RM9,400.

The good news is that Malaysia already has a track record in creating more equitable environments for women.

Over recent decades, it has made impressive gains in ensuring greater female enrolment and educational attainment at all levels of schooling, and girls consistently outperform boys in standardised learning assessments, including math and science.

In spite of these achievements, female labour force participation in Malaysia stood at 55.2 per cent in 2018 compared with 80.4 per cent for men — a rate that is low given the country’s level of development and when compared with other economies in Southeast Asia.

Evidence also indicates that women in Malaysia continue to pursue post-secondary education that are traditionally viewed as more ‘female’ such as education, health, and social work and household work, based on 2010 findings.

In an effort to go beyond the statistics, our team spoke to Malaysians from all walks of life.

We conducted focus groups and engaged with women from lower-income households and poorer regions of the country.

These women are vulnerable and at constant risk of sinking into poverty — yet many are dynamic, creative and wanting to contribute more economically.

The major constraint they face is attending to family responsibilities — caring for the young and the elderly.

As a 38-year-old single mother put it: “My working time is limited. I have to limit my activities.

With my responsibilities towards the family, I have to let go of my dreams.”

The challenge now for Malaysia rests on how to create system-wide and diverse solutions to enable greater female involvement in the labour market.

This major barrier centring on the responsibilities of housework and caregiving is perhaps the greatest challenge for women in Malaysia to overcome.

To participate economically, women will need access to different types of services and financing support, depending on individual circumstances.

Five general policy directions are recommended in the report: expanding the availability, quality and affordability of child and elderly care services; strengthening the protection of informal workers; enhancing the legal environment to deter sexual harassment and discrimination against females in the workplace; improving support for both mothers and fathers in line with international legal norms; and tackling gender norms and negative attitudes in education.

In the area of caregiving, the Malaysian Government can take the lead in offering new solutions for the provision and financing of care services especially for women in the bottom 20 per cent (B20).

As the Government considers solutions, drawing on global experience, it can also encourage the private sector to come up with constructive market-based ideas to enhance the availability and quality of care services that cater to different household income levels.

While Malaysia works on implementing this medium-term agenda, there are some low-hanging fruits that can be addressed through short-term policy interventions, two of which are currently under public discussion.

The first is the amendment of the labour laws including the Employment Act, Industrial Relations Act and Trade Unions Act, which will mandate equal remuneration for work of equal value, enforce non-discrimination and abolish restrictions on women to work at night or underground.

Secondly, the Human Resources Ministry has proposed mandating paid maternity leave for at least 14 weeks after childbirth and introducing paid paternity leave.

These interventions, along with others in the overall package, can encourage women to enter the labour market and return to the workforce after pregnancy and post-delivery period of maternal care.

The road to inclusive prosperity in Malaysia can be accelerated with more ambitious and forward-leading gender policies.

It is not only the right thing to do but the smart direction to follow.

Pursuing this agenda can yield sizable development dividends.

The writer is World Bank group representative to Malaysia and country manager