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Publication Date : 24-01-2014
How Malaysian working mothers balance their professional and personal lives
A two-week break from a hectic 12-hour-workday and seven-day-workweek schedule jolted public relations manager Michelle Dass. She had thought she was managing well – she had met her goals and her family was happy.
But that Christmas break two years ago made her realise she did not know her daughters well at all.
“I realised in the two weeks I was at home, how very little I knew my two daughters who were nine and twelve years old at the time … and also, how little they knew me. They had a more natural relationship with my in-laws with whom they spent most of their weekdays. I actually felt left out.
“I was under the impression I was a good example of a woman who had entered the male-dominated boardroom while maintaining a healthy family life. But the two weeks at home shattered that illusion. I had a successful career, yes. And, I had a happy family. But perhaps, it wasn’t because of me so much as the support networks I had – namely, my in-laws and their maid. Perhaps, I’d fooled myself into believing that I could do it all,” Michelle relates.
During that time, Michelle made what she says is “the best career decision of her life” – she decided to quit her job.
She didn’t have a plan about how the family would live on her husband’s single income. She just knew she wanted to spend more time at home, getting to know and raising her children.
“My husband was very supportive. We discussed how we would manage the bills on a single income … naturally, we had to make some budget cuts. But I was willing to adjust the way I lived and shopped,” says Michelle who now works on a freelance basis from home.
She takes just enough work to help with their expenses, but not so much until she is too busy for her family.
Michelle’s decision to quit her consuming job for a more balanced lifestyle is reflective of a shift in women’s approach to their career.
A recent global survey by networking giant LinkedIn reveals that career women are increasingly defining success as achieving a “work-life balance”.
The “What Women Want” survey – which involved some 5,300 working women across 13 countries – asked women what they needed in their careers to feel that “they had it all”.
Increasingly, more women – 63% of the respondents – say the most important factor which defined success was having a work-life balance.
This is a stark contrast to five years ago when a similar survey found 56% of women defining success as a big paycheque (this figure is down to 45% today).
Some women, like architect Patsy Woo, recognised this need years ago.
Woo never saw herself as a mum, let alone a stay-at-home mum.
“I was very ambitious. Before getting married and having children, my career progress was very rapid. I always doubled my salary … and I never wanted children. I never planned to nor had any inclination to have children. But then, I got pregnant and the moment I held my baby, I fell in love. All I wanted to do, believe it or not, was to stay at home with her,” recounts Woo who has two daughters, Tessa, nine, and Tia, four.
Motherhood, she admits, completely changed how she defined success.
“Before, it was all about recognition, money and status. I used to get such a thrill being the only woman in a boardroom full of men. It was really satisfying.
“But, raising a child is really so much more difficult and challenging. If you can ace motherhood, you can ace the boardroom … no problem at all. My definition of success now is all about raising useful adults. Money, status … all those are secondary,” says Woo.
What about feminism?
When Michelle and Woo decided to leave the workforce, they received a lot of criticism, mostly from women.
“Most of my peers saw me as a disappointment and they told me so. They said I was giving up on a fight, throwing away opportunities that didn’t come to many women. They implied that I was contributing to the dismal percentage of “women on top”.
Basically, they made me feel like I was letting my “side” down.
“I disagreed, loudly. I am not anti-feminist. I’m all for equal opportunities, but not at the expense of my family. If I could somehow maintain my job without the long hours, I would not have quit.
“But it wasn’t possible. I failed to reach an arrangement that suited me with my employers and so I left. I do an odd project now and then, and I do keep abreast of what’s going on in the industry but for the moment, I’m content to be mum,” says Michelle.
Woo faced a similar situation.
“Some people thought I was ‘wasting’ my degree. Others thought I was ‘wasting’ my talent. It was difficult in the beginning, I must admit. But I was also encouraged by a friend of mine, Toh Puan Aishah Ong, who assured me that a university degree is never wasted … no matter what I choose to do, my education will help me be the best at what I do. This kept me going,” she shares.
Woo reckons that all working mothers struggle.
“I don’t think we can work efficiently if a part of us is wondering what’s going on at home. When Tessa was 14 months old, I did return to work for a few months, but I realised that I couldn’t do it because my heart wasn’t into it. I think it is a struggle for all mums who go to work,” she says.
Many mothers are torn between their desire to be good mothers while working on a career they have spent many years building up.
“Most times, we feel an unspoken pressure to carry on at work as if nothing has changed. But when you have children, everything has changed. Our roles have multiplied. Things are not the same,” Michelle says.
Opting out of the workforce doesn’t mean that women’s talents and experiences are forgotten. Woo was persuaded by a friend to work after her second child was born.
“A company based overseas was looking for someone to be the director of their local operations. I refused for months, but finally relented when the managing director agreed to my conditions.
“Among them was that I had to work from home, have flexible hours, and my children came first,” she says, adding that the arrangement is working well.
The solution, Michelle believes, is for employers to have in place family-friendly human resource policies that support working mothers.
“In most workplaces, employees who place their careers first are rewarded. Those who choose to prioritise their families are overlooked or accused of being unprofessional or uncommitted. If you leave at 5.30 or 6pm, you’re judged. In truth, success should be measured by performance and not the hours one clocks in,” she says.
For many families, living on a single income isn’t financially viable.
Finance executive Rita Kaur, 36, argues that she would love to work part-time so that she could spend more time with her children, but couldn’t because they have “bills to pay”.
“It just isn’t possible at the moment. We have commitments … loans, school fees, bills … which have to be fulfilled every month and the only way is if both my husband and I work,” says the mother of four.
In Malaysia, a report by Talent Corporation Malaysia and ACCA, titled “Retaining Women in the Workforce” indicated that 93% of the female respondents on a career break (reasons cited were mainly to raise a family, care for a family member, lack of work-life balance) considered re-entering the workforce.
However, 63% of them felt it is difficult to do so.
Some of the top reasons were because only 30% of the respondents’ employers had flexible work arrangement policies, and only 7% had childcare support facilities in place.
The report pointed out that while the rhetoric within the Malaysian corporate sector supported gender diversity and inclusion, very few Malaysian employers put such sentiments into practice.