SEMENYIH: On 31st March a Gender and Leadership Conference, ‘Leadership Knows No Gender’, was held in room F1A11. The event went on from 9 AM to 12 PM, involving a quality line-up of four influential speakers. It was organised by four students enrolled in the NAA module, Gender and Leadership; in collaboration with Gender Equality in Nottingham (GEN). Furthermore, it seems that this conference is especially timely as the next SA President for the 2017/18 term is Tormalli Vigilia Francis, who will be the second female SA President of UNMC.
The event began with an opening speech from Professor Rozillini Mary Fernandes, who gave an inspirational introduction to female leadership. She then stressed the importance of women in policy-making roles. According to her, despite female constituting 50% of the world population, only 22% of global parliamentarians are women. She says:
“There is still some long way to go for us to achieve that level of 50 percent, but if we can achieve 50% parliamentarians, I don’t think we will have this [gender] debate anymore because policies do make a lot of difference.”
Tony Pua, Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya Utara
The first speaker of the day was MP Tony Pua. His speech was concerning the minimal involvement of Malaysian women in political issues. With the rhetoric of a politician, his beginning account was persuasive:
“Let me perhaps start off my not-too-long speech by highlighting the fact that it is a little sad – it’s not just here, it’s everywhere – when it comes to gender issues, women issues, you see maybe 10% men and 90% women.”
He then suggested that the difficulties women face during participation in politics include religious conservatism, patriarchal dominance and traditional ideas in the family. However, while he admitted that religious conservatism is one of the toughest boundaries to achieving gender equality in political leadership, he did not directly address it because he says it is “very sensitive” in the Malaysian context.
Pua argues that male dominance in society originates from ancient civilisation because physical strength was the primary source of survival at the time. However, he says that physical strength is no longer crucially important in modern society. He adds that:
“Going forward, strength doesn’t get you anywhere anymore, other than winning Olympic medals. You don’t need strength to run computer systems, you do not need physical strength to run a country, you do not need speed to get from one place to another because you can drive your car or sit in a plane […] and that’s something that gives a huge leg up to women going forward.”
Pua also addressed the role of traditional viewpoints in the family that hinders women’s involvement in national politics. One key instance of familial traditionalism is the assumed caregiving role of women. For instance, mothers remain the ‘default caregivers’ in families. Thus, in order to challenge such traditional notions, policy-makers should provide the paternal leave to fathers, which has been an objective of his party.
Due to his scheduling difficulties, Pua needed to address the Q&A session right after his speech; in the agenda, forum discussion would only have started after all speeches of the speakers. The audience raised multiple quality questions. One was the difficulty of making politics attractive to young women. In response, Pua first discussed the similar traditional ideas that constrain young women within the household.
In addition, he pointed out the importance of having a role model for young women:
“By having more women in top positions, whether in government or in the party, it actually elevates the status to many other young women who [would] see more women in this field, and possibly [become] more interested in the subject.”
One critical question from an academic of UNMC sparked a sudden yet significant discussion of feminism and sexism. In the asker’s research, she found that the DAP had inserted a sexist headline to describe DAP candidate Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud in 2014. It seems that instead of emphasising her professional identity, the party seemed to have focused more on her physical appearance.
Pua’s response was both thorough and indirect. Before he accepted the possibility that the DAP could have made such mistake, he discussed the debate amongst feminists, questioning whether describing a woman for her beauty is actually politically incorrect.
Goh Siu Lin, Chairwoman of the Kuala Lumpur Bar Committee
The second speaker started her speech with a background story of her life experience. Having a diverse background, as well as with her experience overseas, Goh Siu Lin believed that her social trajectory has shaped her personal development and journey to becoming a senior lawyer today.
The main focus of her honest and inspiring speech was on the dilemma of becoming a mother and simultaneously a senior lawyer. This difficulty resonated with the sentiment of many in the audience. She urged all young women to understand the idea of feminism and gender relations. In fact, she had not understood until she started her professional career as a young lawyer. According to Goh:
“I joined AWL, which is the Association of Women Lawyers, and I got my first training on feminist perspectives of law, right. So life changed after that. It [became] better.”
However, this is not only limited to women. Goh implied that it is important for men to understand the feminist ideology too. After explaining the importance of feminism to her husband, she states that he has taken initiatives in caregiving. She says:
“[As for] my husband, it’s not his fault because he was brought up in a household where the mother was the homemaker, so he never knew anything else. This was where the education came in. So I then re-educated him.”
This part of her speech received a round of applause.
Her dedication, professionalism and perseverance led to her growing leadership in the Kuala Lumpur Bar Committee. According to Goh, her colleagues are eager for her to run for the chairwomanship earlier this year. However, despite her speech advocating female leadership and gender equality, IGNITE discovered evidence of sexism in a range of media content describing her title.
In the official brochure of this conference, Goh is titled as the first ‘female chairman’. In the Malay Mail Online article announcing her chairwomanship, she is described as a ‘chairman’. In the official website of Shook Lin & Bok in which she acts as a legal partner, she is again recognised as the ‘chairman’.
Some may think that using ‘chairman’ to refer to female leaders is acceptable despite the generic suffix -man. But the use of ‘chairman’ to describe women is widely identified as an explicit form of sexist language.
Gender in language was proven to be crucial especially when the speaker herself, while referring to her volunteering for a firefighting role during her child’s birthday party, consciously put it this way:
“They asked for three volunteers to be firemen. So one man, two men, but it cannot be all men. So I jumped up, I said I want to be a firefighter.”
After a 15-minute break, the third speaker began his speech. He used a large amount of analogy from his business experience to explain his main idea of gender and leadership. Jason Lo stated that he emphasises demographic diversity in Tune Talk. He makes sure that there is tolerance of the transgender and homosexual community in the workplace.
But he later said that some of his Muslim followers on Twitter denounced his tolerance of transgender and homosexuality with harsh words. Yet, these same people change their tone from anger to confusion when they find out that he is actually also a Muslim.
While many may not understand how that could relate to gender and leadership, it is perceived that, as the speaker afterwards noted; gender and leadership as well as gender equality all begin from education and the virtue of open-mindedness.
However, some of the Lo’s word choices raised questions of sexism, although he dismissed it with the thought that these were only “jokes”. Key examples include one occasion where he stressed the word ‘ass’ in ‘assets’ twice, and he stated that women have many assets, “not only two”.
(The use of language by Jason Lo is open to public interpretation, IGNITE has no part to intervene.)
Molly Fong, CEO of The Body Shop of West Malaysia and Vietnam
The last speaker of the conference was a Nottingham alumnus. Molly Fong started by announcing that there is a box of condoms in the Body Shop bags that were distributed to each audience member. The purpose of these condoms was to remind female audience members that women no longer have to be afraid of purchasing condoms in the public.
The main emphasis of her speech was on the importance of activism in achieving gender equality. She stressed that the business class in society should conform to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
According to Fong, the Body Shop has organised a series of activist movements in order to achieve social purposes. She strongly believes that if corporate employers maintain a set of moral principles, companies and employees will then as well fulfil social responsibilities.
She later suggested that cultural constraints – such as the media and celebrities – are what shape gender stereotypes and sexism in society. Yet she seemingly ignored these cultural constraints by urging women to remove all “excuses” in life and be committed to achieving professional success.
The final session of the conference was an open discussion. Key issues include the way women could break the glass-ceiling and the lack of interests amongst young people in activism. The three speakers on stage (MP Tony Pua had left as stated earlier) provided answers to the questions.
Goh and Fong stressed that it is true that women might need to work harder in order to achieve equal professional identities with men. This shows that gender equality, according to Goh’s feminism, is still present in society. Fong then explained that activism is not synonymous with major civil movements in society. Instead, it starts with conversations in the private life. The three speakers urged the younger generation to persevere and be brave in challenging inequalities and falsehood in society.
The conference reached its falling action with a closing speech by Dr Lucy Bailey. She complimented the four NAA students for their dedication and proactivity in organising the conference. After a well-deserved round of applause for the committee, she continued:
“We just wrote the occasional email, and gave a bit of advice; but this event has come from this group of people and to me, that’s been absolutely inspiring. I’ll like to thank you, and you are my role models as well.”
The event ended as the speakers were given tokens of appreciation. ‘Leadership Knows No Gender’ ignited enthusiasm amongst the audience. Hopefully, it helped achieve a greater understanding of gender relations especially within the younger generation, which is a fundamental step to achieving equality in society.
Written by Teoh Sing Fei
photographs by Foo Jing Wern