Majority of women surveyed face sexual harassment at work, women’s group says

Sexual harassment is presently covered under the Employment Act, but limited to encounters between employers and employees.

PETALING JAYA: A survey by the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) has found that the majority of Malaysian women surveyed have experienced some form of sexual harassment at the workplace.

It said 62% of 1,010 women surveyed reported experiencing sexual harassment at the workplace. The survey also found that 56% of women have experienced workplace discrimination.

This includes receiving comments or questions about their marital status or plans to start a family, being overlooked for promotions and being asked to do tasks that are not asked of male colleagues, such as making coffee and preparing refreshments.

According to WAO, the result supports the cry for policy change, including passing amendments to the Employment Act 1955 in the next Parliament session.

The ”Voices of Malaysian Women on Discrimination & Harassment in the Workplace” survey which was carried out in collaboration with research agency had asked 1,010 Malaysian women between the ages of 24 and 55 who have been actively working in the last five years, questions about workplace harassment and discrimination, and also on paternity and maternity leave.

Need for a Sexual Harassment Act

Natasha Dandavati, WAO’s campaigns head, said sexual harassment was covered under the Employment Act but was limited to encounters between employers and employees only.

During an online presentation held to discuss the survey’s findings, she said under the law, employers had a statutory obligation to enquire into an employee’s complaint of sexual harassment within 30 days of receiving it. However, employers have the ultimate discretion over such enquiries.

Although the human resources ministry (MOHR) had proposed additional protection against sexual harassment in the Employment Act, including the requirement for employers to have a sexual harassment policy, she said “this should not be an alternative to passing an independent Sexual Harassment Act”.

Dandavati said this Act was necessary to address all forms of sexual harassment, including for individuals in the workplace who were not covered under it – such as interns, volunteers and clients.

“The Act must also be comprehensive in the way it defines sexual harassment, including all forms of conduct across a variety mediums and platforms, from text to Whatsapp to social media to videoconferencing technologies,” she said, adding that the new law must also establish a tribunal for victims to bring complaints of sexual harassment in a way that is inexpensive, fast and not burdensome.

Gender-based discrimination

Dandavati also said that gender-based discrimination was faced by female employees and job seekers alike.

She added that legally, there was no protection against such discrimination at the moment. However, there have been proposals to include protection against discrimination based on gender, race and religion, but only for employees.

“Not including job seekers in the scope would mean they may continue to face discrimination and may even be barred from employment altogether.”

The survey found that 47% of women were asked about their marital status during a job interview, while one in every five women was questioned on their ability to perform certain tasks as a woman.

Paternity and maternity leave

Aside from harassment and discrimination, the survey also looked into the issue of paternity and maternity leave in Malaysia.

It found that 39% of women said their husbands enjoyed less than a week of paternity leave, 29% said they got one to two weeks while 16% said their husbands did not receive any paternity leave.

A total of 55% of women agreed that paternity leave was insufficient, and 63% of this group said the husbands’ lack of paternity leave negatively affected their emotional and mental health.

However, fathers working in the private sector are not guaranteed any paternity leave, although the MOHR had previously proposed three days of paid paternity leave for the private sector.

On the topic of maternity leave, nearly a quarter of Malaysian women surveyed felt that their paid maternity leave was insufficient. Currently, the government sector provides 90 days of paid leave for new mothers while those in the private sector get 60 days.

“Extending this (maternity leave) to 98 days will bring Malaysia in line with the International Labour Organisation’s minimum standard of 14 weeks and will ensure better health outcomes while keeping women in the workforce,” said Dandavati, adding that the extension would also help remove some of the stigma over pregnancy and maternity leave that still affected female workers.

Elaborating on this stigma, she said the survey found that 20% of women with children reported receiving comments or questions on their ability to perform certain tasks while pregnant.

Meanwhile, 23% of women who returned to work after having a child said they received negative comments or questions about leaving work on time to get home to their child, and 31% said they were overlooked for projects or opportunities upon returning to work from maternity leave.