Are 90 days of maternity leave too long?

Any inclination to stop hiring women due to the prospects of them becoming mothers will only expand the discrimination against women at work

AMONG the many incentives announced in Budget 2020, the government’s plan to increase the maternity leave from 60 to 90 days became one of the highly debated topics on the Internet.

A statement made by local entrepreneur Christy Ng (picture) as a panel on a television show created a firestorm among citizens. She raised the concerns or her “non-excitement” over the prospect of the extended maternity leave.

Her comments sparked various responses from Internet users. Some censured her for being insensitive and capitalistic.

Ng said the budget was inclusive, but the proposed 90-day maternity leave could be a double-edged sword.

She later clarified on her Instagram that the extended leave may deter more employers from putting women at high-ranking positions or making it difficult for women to get high C-suite positions.

She said SMEs (small and medium enterprises) may not hire women as they could not afford the three months’ leave.

Some viewed Ng’s comments skewed to an employer’s perspective.

Unsurprisingly, she was not alone. The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF), the local central organisation of private-sector employers in the country, had long argued that the 90 days’ leave was not viable.

MEF said employers would see operational costs rising by RM2.7 billion annually from the proposed leave. This could be derived from its estimate from the 2018 data, where out of 55.2% female in the labour force, or 508,685 women, would be having a newborn.

The net was filled with supporters of the proposal. The proposal and the budget as a whole had indicated the government’s commitment to encouraging more women to remain and return to the workforce. This was evident with the various initiatives under #Wanitakerja.

It is hard to ignore some realities. Women account for the majority in local universities, but the number of women working is lower than men.

Analysts have given many reasons for this discrepancy. Khazanah Research Institute’s recent study revealed the majority of women in Malaysia cited housework and family responsibilities for not joining the workforce.

The study also found that women’s participation in the workforce peaked at between ages 25 and 29, but decreased gradually for each subsequent age group.

The lack of female participation would see the future prospects of Malaysia — with life expectancy now 16% higher than in the 70s and facing a decline of total fertility by 66.7%. — impacted.

The country, while not at a demographic time bomb like Japan or Singapore, must address the issue from the onset.

Malaysia is also one of the 31 countries that do not follow the International Labour Organisation’s recommendation in allowing 14 weeks of maternity leave for employees.

It is undebatable about the benefits of the maternity leave for the mother and child. And a happy worker is a productive employee.

Companies could plan for their female staff’s temporary absence from work. If she holds a high-ranking position, there are ways to share the responsibilities.

Any inclination to stop hiring women due to the prospect of them becoming mothers will only expand the discrimination against women at work.

Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Hannah Yeoh was spot on when she said that asking for 90 days would be the most basic and minimal — “not asking for the sky” to incentivise an employee.

Some outcomes are intangible. But studies in the more developed nations have shown that a conducive and supportive environment has been the key to the success of the world’s biggest companies.

Azreen Hani is the online news editor of The Malaysian Reserve.