Global Summit Of Women 2013 Women – Creating Economies

Engaging Men in Diversity Programs

It is a great pleasure for me to be here this afternoon and to be given the opportunity to address such a distinguished audience. My thanks Ms. Irene Natividad, President of the Global Summit, and to Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah Mansor, Chair of the 2013 Summit, for the kind invitation. The Global Summit of Women has become a blue-ribbon event, where women public officials and corporate leaders meet to share ideas with each other and with policymakers on how to lead more economically fulfilling lives. My congratulations to all of you.

2. The theme of this year’s Summit, ‘Creating New Economies’, is particularly appropriate, coming at a time when the world economy is in dire need of fresh ideas to sustain economic growth and generate employment. By exploring new and inventive approaches and modalities, many afforded by new technologies, women can create for themselves self-sustaining opportunities to earn income and improve their livelihoods in a pro-active and dynamic manner.

3. The topic of my address this afternoon is ‘Engaging Men in Diversity Programmes’. Let me begin by saying that I think the idea that men must be involved in diversity programmes an enlightened one. For too long, the subject of raising the level and quality of women participation in the workplace has been considered the primary responsibility of women. In many parts of the world, this is still the reality. There has also been an adversarial “us-versus-them” mindset that, in my opinion, is limiting and outdated. If diversity programmes are to be effective and sustainable, they must be based on the shared goals and interests of women and men.

4. On assuming office in December last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, declared that one of the most important planks in his labour reforms –what the media calls ‘Abenomics’ – is gender parity. He has referred to women as “Japan’s most underutilised resource” and promised to unveil specific policies to encourage them back into the workforce and into better corporate positions. These include better childcare centres and extended maternity leave. Whether one agrees with the measures, what is apparent is that these reforms are intended to reignite a stalling Japanese economy, as much as redress the gender gap. In other words, investing in women is just common sense and good economics.

5. The way to engage men in diversity programmes is, therefore, to create this sense of shared interest so that they, that is, men, will be the champions of women in the workplace. The cost of not recognising the contribution of women to economic growth and progress is a large one, one that economies wanting to move ahead ignore at their peril.

6. As a student of development, I am keenly aware of the strong positive and mutually reinforcing relationship that exists between female labour force participation and the level of economic development. Many economic and socio-economic studies consistently support this conclusion and it is difficult to see how any economy is able to progress on a sustained basis without capitalising on the contributions of women. For me, the two are necessary and synonymous. For all of the hard evidence, however, the actual role and contribution of women is still greatly under-appreciated.

7. For many societies, the participation of women at all levels of the workforce is still seen as something of an optional extra – nice to have but not essential. This is not helped by the fact that, many times, when the subject of women’s participation in work is discussed, the participants are mainly, sometimes only, women. The most basic step that can be done, it would seem to me, is to consciously include men in these discussions, especially those who are in positions of making and influencing policy. Having the prime minister participate in this Seminar is a good start.

8. An important step is to create a greater awareness of the unique and powerful contributions women make in society. This will help bring to the fore the tremendous catalytic value that women play in the growth and development process. In many societies, women already play vital roles in the areas of health, education and social development. But they are also making substantial contributions in the areas of science and technology, in the world of business, industry and finance, as well as management and administration. All over the world, women are leaders in the active creation of knowledge and wealth.

9. With a greater appreciation of the real role that women play, diversity programmes can and should become a shared enterprise, one that is based on the collective and sustainable interests of both sexes. This can help remove many of the walls and ceilings that have either locked women out or prevented them from moving up in their careers. In saying this, I am not discounting for one moment, the significant social and cultural barriers that continue to hold women back, especially in more traditional societies. In recent times, we have seen or read about vivid examples of how badly women and girls are treated in their own societies, especially when they behave in a manner that is considered out of step with society or rather a particular segment of society.

10. Many of us would have followed with great interest the story about the 15-year old girl in Afghanistan, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by a Taliban gunman because she expressed a wish to attend school. It should be emphasized in the strongest terms that this situation has nothing to do with Islam. It is, in fact, the very antithesis of all that Islam stands for. It has more to do with the grip on society of unhealthy tribal traditions and customs that distort religious interpretation and inhibit human development. In Islam the pursuit of knowledge, both spiritual and material, is nothing short of a religious obligation. Acquisition of knowledge is considered a form of worship and will bring a Muslim closer to God.

11. In many societies, women face more difficulties in securing first-time employment and, even when they manage to secure it, earn less, and are less insulated from job losses owing to the nature of the jobs they hold. They are also not helped by labour market regulations and practices that are often unfriendly, even hostile, to women. They are frequently stifled by corporate practices that restrict their career advancement.

12. In many societies, cultural norms place on women the primary responsibility for child rearing, as well as support of their spouses’ careers. These social pressures make it very difficult to achieve a sustained productive and fulfilling worklife. Availability of household help can, of course, assist significantly but this is costly and not an option in all places. The widespread provision of quality day care centres, such as those envisaged by Japan, are an important second track to relieve women of some of these responsibilities. Ultimately, social behaviour must change in tandem. Diversity programmes should be shared or collective affairs. With informed and progressively-minded men firmly onboard, joint endeavours can be made in earnest to create as level a playing field as possible and as facilitative a policy environment as possible.

13. Let me close by saying that Malaysia’s progress to date bears out the principles I have touched on. Of course, there remains much more to be done. Women’s representation in many areas and at many levels is still inadequate. But we would not have achieved this much without the active contribution of many able women in our workforce.

14. All that remains is for me to once again thank Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah Mansor and Ms. Irene Natividad for giving me this opportunity to address you. I wish you all a productive Summit, and to those of our participants from abroad may I take this opportunity to wish you a pleasant stay in Malaysia and a safe journey home.

Thank you.

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