CIRCLE OF SUPPORT
“Women in the workforce are going to encounter criticism. I experienced it first hand when I was asked ‘What is your goal in the next five years?’”
“So, I told them my goals and they asked ‘Why don’t you have marriage in your plan?,” says 30 year-old Abir Rahim. “That got me thinking, am I not enough?”
That conversation sparked a deeper reflection within Abir on the obstacles facing women in the workforce - be it societal expectations, workplace inequality and unfair compensations - all key themes touched by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her 2013 book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”
Young women are at a crossroads. Once we start working - do we focus on career or do we settle down and have our own family?
“A lot of us have read it and came together because we could relate to what was written in her book. Young women are at a crossroads. Once we start working - do we focus on career or do we settle down and have our own family?,” says Abir.
So, what started out as a ‘book club’ of just six women turned into the Asian Women Circle Lean In Malaysia in 2014 - a non-profit organisation supported by Sandberg’s www.leanin.org
Abir, who is an actuary at Takaful Malaysia championed the local chapter, along with Sarah Chan, a corporate venture investor.
The movement doesn't want to be just another catchphrase for empowering women; it is a support network that carries out programs to help women ‘be the best versions of themselves’; and that includes dialogues addressing some of the career woes and setbacks that Sandberg discusses in her book.
In Asia, there is a high prevalence of women dropping out of the workforce where mothers of young children are more likely to stop working or scale back to focus on family.
“Our female share of the labor force have one single peak. What it means is that many do not re-enter the workforce, compared to Singapore, South Korea or other Western countries, it is double peak, where women would drop out and re-enter,” says Abir, who is also the Regional Leader for Lean in Asia.
The organisation, with over 5,000 members in Malaysia, also advocates mentorship programs to help women progress into senior management as women continue to encounter challenges in their ascent to leadership.
“We also do a lot of mentorship and accelerator programmes because we feel, for women to move up the corporate pipeline, you need male or female leaders to sponsor and mentor the young executives, and to make sure they stay in the pipeline,” says Abir.
Here, she emphasises why it’s crucial to get men’s involvement in its programmes.
“In order to address issues like gender bias or gender equality you need to get the men involved too. That’s the whole idea of inclusivity,” reminding that the onus of achieving gender equality should not be put exclusively on women.
“A lot of us on in the team gather during our lunch hours or weekends because we believe in this cause to elevate the status of men and women.”
“At the end of the day, Lean In Malaysia is platform to encourage people to be the best versions of themselves,” says Abir.
Lean In Malaysia raises funds through corporate sponsorships like UEM, 7-Eleven, Asia School of Business, EcoWorld and Lazada, to name a few.
Abir says that, sometimes, internal obstacles and a lack of confidence are what hold women back to getting a job they want, a seat at the table or the pay raise they deserve.
“Women tend to overthink which is not something we should see as our weakness, we should leverage on that as a strength. Lean In Malaysia helps navigate your career to achieve that promotion or salary increase.”
Women lack confidence because we lack the support.
“Women lack confidence because we lack the support. We need the reinforcements from CEOs and management as well, to create a friendlier working environment, with accessible daycare centres for the mothers within the buildings itself,” adds Abir.
“There’s still so much that needs to be done because we are coming close to 2020 but based on the World Economic Forum report, we still need another 100 years to close the gender gap.”
“Once you create the awareness about the issues, that’s when a lot of people will open their eyes to the issues of unconscious bias, gender bias and gender gap,” says Abir.