30% quota for women: Are we there yet?

Let's make Malaysia a nation that fully understands and respects gender equality and women's empowerment

CHRISTINA MORILLO/PEXELS

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Recently, the minister responsible for women, family and community development, Nancy Shukri, reportedly said the 30% quota for women previously set by the government should be reconsidered given the current situation that “42% of women actively participated in decision making roles within the public service sector”.

The minister reportedly said many women now possess the qualifications, including experience and academic achievements, to compete equally with men in decision-making positions across various service levels. 

“Considering that we have already surpassed the 30 per cent mark, reaching 42 per cent in the public sector, setting a new target at 50 per cent or beyond should not be hindered by ceilings or limitations,” she added.

She was apparently responding to comments by former international trade and industry minister Rafidah Aziz in a recent podcast about the removal of the 30% quota for women and the need to recognise women as decision-makers based on merit.

For context, let’s review the background to the 30% quota for women.

30% quota for women

The push for gender equality and women’s empowerment is an ongoing journey.

Way back in 1995, the Beijing Declaration Platform for Action highlighted the need to take measures to ensure “women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision making”.

The Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) under Article 4 paragraph 1 calls for states to adopt temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women. These include measures like the allocation of resources, preferential treatment, targeted recruitment and quotas (Cedaw general recommendation 25).

The 30% quota for women usually refers to the critical mass of women’s representation believed to be necessary “for women to make a visible impact on the style and content of political decision making”.

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The 30% quota is not a ceiling but a minimum threshold level, a minimum level to strive towards and to move beyond. Make no mistake, the quota in no way limits women’s participation in leadership and decision-making. It aims to help correct a discriminatory environment.

Quotas also need to work in tandem with other efforts, eg training, awareness-raising and changing attitudes – much of which needs to target and involve men.

Malaysia, in line with the Beijing Declaration’s platform and being a signatory to Cedaw, took the step in 2004 of announcing a 30% policy for women in decision-making levels in the public sector in the Ninth Malaysia Plan.

This was further extended in the “Dasar Wanita Plan of Action 2009” strategy for women in decision-making and politics to achieving at least 30% women in decision-making levels at all levels in all sectors including the public sector, private sector, unions, employer associations, education and academic institutions, private and non-governmental agencies. The target also includes all levels of politics including in Parliament, state assemblies and the Senate.

In 2011, the government announced a policy to target 30% women in decision-making positions across all listed companies by 2016.

So how are we faring on the 30% quota for women in decision-making?

Sex-disaggregated data on decision-making positions across a range of sectors would give us an idea. But here are some figures.

In May 2023, the minister informed Parliament that Malaysia has almost achieved its target of having women make up at least 30% of board members among the top 100 listed companies. The number of women at the top management level or C-suite in the public service sector stood at 38.8% as of December 2022.

This is good but surely the yardstick of measurement for the 30% quota for women in decision-making extends beyond the public service and the boardrooms of listed companies. What about other decision-making positions, for example, political leadership and participation?

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In response to a supplementary question on the fulfilling of the 30% women participation target in Parliament, the minister said that ensuring at least one-third women’s participation in Parliament may be a distant dream for now, but not impossible.

Clearly, in some sectors the minimum 30% quota for women in decision-making may have been achieved but not in others.

Let’s look closer at women in political leadership and decision-making.

Women currently make up only 16.1% of cabinet members, 13.5% of parliamentarians, 12.0% of state assembly representatives and 16.0% of senators. None of these figures come close to the minimum target of the 30% quota for women.

When women are glaringly absent from political leadership and decision-making in the country, we get a clear picture as to who can sit at the decision-making table and influence and make decisions about the direction and policies of the country. It is not the women.

The absence of women’s voices in politics is the clearest example of the sidelining of women in political decision-making. What a loss to the country this is!

Obviously, the nation needs a greater representation of women in politics. Is this the time to reconsider the 30% quota for women?

Detractors of the 30% quota

Detractors of the 30% quota say women are already more than qualified and the quota is not needed.

Or they argue on the grounds of the principle of merit or the dampening of competition.

Some argue that “unqualified women are being placed in positions they should not be in”.

They even say, “I did it why can’t they?” or that women are taking away positions from men because of the quota.

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Often, many of these detractors speak from a position of privilege (including that of class or connections) or worse, prejudice. Many lack an understanding of the reality of discrimination so many ordinary women face.

Cedaw general recommendations 25 para 10 states: “The position of women will not be improved as long as the underlying causes of discrimination against women, and of their inequality, are not effectively addressed…”

Just think of why, for example, it is so difficult to get women’s political representation in government. Attitudes and structures which uphold inequalities and discrimination need to change.

Message to ministers

Ministers, the journey towards gender equality and women’s empowerment is long, as many of you are well aware. We are not just talking about equality and empowerment for the elite class of women in the country. We need to consider those facing the tough realities of gender inequality and discrimination on a daily basis as well.

Ministers, our country needs you all to stand firm and uphold the sound policies already in place to increase women’s representation at all levels. We need you to push for these policies to be better implemented, monitored and evaluated.

We need you to educate all those around you (in and out of cabinet) about what the 30% quota for women actually means. Men need to be as much involved in this as women.

We look forward to the time when this country will not need quotas of any kind, when policies are truly inclusive and are both understanding of and capable of addressing people’s needs.

But until then, let’s press on with the work which needs to be done to have an increased representation of women in all sectors. Let’s make Malaysia a nation that fully understands and respects gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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