It may be difficult to walk into a room and find someone who has not been shaken and stirred by the James Bond films for their great action sequences or attractive Bond girls. However, these components, particularly the latter, have landed the franchise strong criticism for being wildly out of touch with social reality due to widely regarded vicious misogyny. Recognizing this, its latest installment brought on board actress Lashana Lynch as the new 007, and the writing team included a female industry leader to categorically infuse the script with a fresh female perspective.

Last year, there were two major changes to authoritative promulgation and guidelines in Malaysia with regards to gender diversity on boards of listed issuers. In April, the Securities Commission Malaysia (SC) had introduced a practice in the Malaysian Code on Corporate Governance (MCCG) calling for listed boards to comprise at least 30 percent women directors or to disclose the action it has, or will take, to achieve 30 percent or more women directors and the timeframe to achieve this. The Budget 2022 speech also called for all listed issuers to have at least one female director on board, and the Main Market and ACE Market Listing Requirements of Bursa Malaysia Securities Berhad (Bursa) have been amended to incorporate this requirement.

While quotas and requirements on women participation may be a great start, it may not be sufficient and will need to be supplemented by more proactive initiatives from the corporate (including non-listed companies) and public sectors. It would be useful to acknowledge data from the SC’s Corporate Governance Monitor 2021, which highlights that 691 of the 943 listed issuers – which represents close to 75 percent of listed issuers - already have at least one female director on their board, and gender diversity on boards face a risk of plateauing progress. Hence, there is a need for gender inequity in Malaysia to be approached from a more principles-based and innovative mindset.

Research indicates that when gender diversity is viewed as “normatively” accepted, meaning there’s widespread cultural belief in the intrinsic value of gender diversity, the positive benefits will be successfully captured by initiatives that promote it. The reverse is also true under circumstances where gender inclusion is merely driven by regulatory compliance. Under the latter, gender diversity will not relate to more productive companies (measured by market value and revenue). Corporate Malaysia is faced with several unintended realities due to emphasis placed on regulatory compliance and not normative acceptance. [1]

The “golden-skirt” phenomenon - where an individual female director, typically a woman icon, has come to hold multiple directorships - is prevalent among the top 100 listed issuers in Malaysia. This honed focus on women icons disenfranchises wider corporate female participation and poses a time commitment challenge. An analysis by KPMG Management & Risk Consulting Sdn Bhd across the top 100 listed issuers found that there is a higher proportion of women with two of more directorships compared to their male counterparts.

Simultaneously, the advocacy for female board membership has resulted in instances of female executives doubling-up as non-executive directors in listed companies, raising concerns on time commitment and conflicts of interest, prompting corporate governance advocates to pressure regulators to dissuade the practice of having executives doubling up as non-executive directors in listed issuers.

It was also brought to the fore that in certain male dominated boards, where a single female director has been appointed solely for compliance purposes, the value adds of board diversity are not recognized as the woman director’s inputs are not given due recognition and are sidelined. In such cases, women in leadership positions are not actually empowered and the different perspectives, competencies, functional expertise, approaches to stewardship, and risk-reward orientation they may bring to the table – which enhance the quality of board decisions – cannot be tapped.

From a more macro perspective, the importance of gender equity and empowerment can be seen in Nepal.  Through an integrated process of economic, social, legal, and political empowerment, long term projects were implemented to improve the socioeconomic conditions of rural women and women of other disadvantaged groups. Nepal’s experience shows that initiatives focused on women equality and empowerment can achieve positive results for women and their communities, including tangible results such as increases to women’s economic productivity, higher household incomes and improved health status, as well as intangible outcomes seen in the decrease in negative beliefs and practices relative to girls’ education, and child and early marriages.

Against this backdrop, the private and public sector should have clarity on the goals it intends to achieve through gender diversity policies and initiatives and identify relevant short-term and long-term action plans. As a starting point, there should be a consensus on the principles driving gender diversity efforts. These could include gender balance (equal representation in numbers), gender parity (equality in status and opportunity), diversity (inclusion of different perspectives by including individuals of different backgrounds, such as ethnicity or age) or gender mainstreaming (integrating a gender equity perspective at all stages of policies, programmes and projects). These equity and diversity principles will serve as a guide for targets and metrics set up by companies and the government to champion inclusion and improve gender equality.

Companies will also need to strive for more profound targets and achievements in gender equity and should extend their focus beyond board appointments towards the entire employment lifecycle. Targets for board appointment should be supplemented with considerations in the areas of board refreshment, remuneration (and promotion), training and professional development, as well as mentorship and sponsorship programmes.

Public sector alignment and commitment to the cause is pertinent to achieving gender equity goals across the nation. The tabling of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill 2021 for its first reading in the Dewan Rakyat is one such example. Research indicates (and common-sense also dictates) that sexual harassment promotes discriminatory work conditions which constitutes a tax on gender minorities, regardless of whether they are female or male. So, while the first reading of said Bill merely marks the first step in a long process, it offers a glimmer of hope towards progress in the right direction.

Less measurable areas of consideration include efforts to reduce biased language, initiatives to eliminate associations with gender stereotypes, and the way opinions and ideas are handled. When designed with well-defined gender diversity policies in place, practices in these areas will be able to address the occurrent challenges raised above, vis-à-vis operationalizing gender quotas on boards, as well as the wider issue of women empowerment, diversity, and inclusion. Practices which serve as powerful bias interrupters should also be implemented in the public sector as well, such as in schools, government offices, and parliament. In 2014, former United States’ President, Barack Obama, made history when he only fielded questions from female journalists, and specifically print and radio journalists, (and not network journalists) at his year-end press conference, inspiring diversity and inclusion.

Some global practices which can be considered locally include collaborations to form networks for female leaders. For example, companies within certain economic sectors in Germany have established global networks for their female employees, offering mentorship programs and trainings, as well as initiatives to increase their visibility. These networks also serve as a platform to deliberate related issues that arise for women within private and public spaces.

Additionally, men in positions of power and influence can step up beside women leaders to be “champions of change”. For instance, key male leaders in the public and private sector can lead and be accountable for change on gender equity issues in their companies, organizations, and even communities. A profound effort could include key male leaders addressing domestic and family violence as a workplace issue (in the public and private sector) through prevention, support, and response.

There is a plethora of programs and initiatives which companies can undertake when committed to change. The time has come for leaders in Malaysia to really sink their teeth into progressing beyond quotas towards more progressive approaches to diversity and inclusion. On that note, women representation on boards is just one aspect of diversity and inclusion, and leaders in the private sector and public sector need to think more holistically about initiatives for the corporate sector and the rest of society. Finally, and crucially, quotas and targets are just tangible representations of the bigger picture; the raison d’etre is about creating a shift in culture towards one which values diversity and inclusion and is ready to harness its benefits.

Drawing back to the Bond anecdote, it is worth noting that prior attempts were made in previous Bond movies to distance the franchise from critical opprobrium. Nevertheless, it was merely viewed as an attempt to placate critics, because it failed to address the series’ fundamental denial of women’s agency portrayed in the Bond movies. Hence, much like efforts to modernize Ian Fleming’s fictional character, the private and public sector in Malaysia need to approach gender equity with a long-term and meaningful lens towards normative acceptance.

[1] This refers to the emphasis on authoritative promulgations, such as the quotas on women participation on boards of listed issuers outlined in SC’s MCCG and Bursa’s Listing Requirements, but weak cultural support, in which cultures in workplaces, homes, communities, the government, are strongly male-dominant.