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There’s nothing stopping women… or is there?

This was the topic of debate at yesterday’s Womens Summit Malaysia as teams of passionate, successful entrepreneurs thrashed out the arguments for and against and therefore why there are so few women making it to the top in Malaysia and around the world.  After an hour of debate and discussion, the 1,000 strong audience was asked to vote: green For the motion, red Against. This is what the vote looked like:











Why so many red cards?  It certainly wasn’t that good arguments weren’t put by the For team, which was led by Malaysian born and Bahrain-based Dr Zaha Rina Zahari who expounded the many successes of women in the region including the recent election of Julia Gillard as PM in Australia.  Perhaps it was that their success stories – while celebrated – were simply too few and far between.

For example Saki Fukushima, the first woman to serve on the board of directors of leading Japanese corporations as Kao, Sony, Benesse and Bridgestone also argued in the affirmative that women are now being appointed to boards in Japan. But even so, there were only 5 women in total on the boards of Japanese companies on the recent Fortune200 list.

Malaysian entrepreneur and commentator, Rita Sim Sai Hoon summed up for the affirmative that because there is a small number of women making it through to the top that there is nothing holding the rest of us back.  Noting that women hold only 11% of board positions in Malaysia and only a handful of CEO roles – despite women being the majority of educated talent with a female to male ratio of 1.3 in Malyasia’s universities – this simply can’t be true.  I mean, these statistics in any situation other than a gender debate would never be classified as success. 

Those voting “red” were won over by the arguments Against the motion led by Dr Rafiah Salim who spearheads the NAM Institute for the Empowerment of Women, and was previously the first woman Vice-Chancellor in Malaysia and an Assistant Secretary General at the UN – so she’s seen first hand the many, many obstacles that are still holding women back around the world.  Workplace cultures, societal expectations of women and their caring responsibilities, not to mention the estimated 30 million women estimated to “go missing” every year in developing countries that still don’t value women as equals.

Also Against was Shivani Gupta from Australia, who spoke about how women are holding themselves back – with self limiting beliefs, excuses, unclear goals and vision and a victim mentality.  If women themselves aren’t pushing for the best, then why should we expect equality?  She argued its time women found their own passion and follow their own path to success and we’ll continue to have obstacles while we put them there.

And finally we heard from Mina Cheah-Foong, who opened The Body Shop in Kuala Lumpur in 1984 and has since grown her business from that single, tiny shop to over 58 stores in Layasia and Vietnam, employing more than 400 people.  Mina articulated perfectly the challenges women face when recounting how – in search of flexibility – she left the corporate world behind to start her own business.  The demands of big business and traditional carer role of women are holding women back, she says, and she thinks that change is too slow to come.

So… if indeed there is still plenty holding women back, what is to be done?  One thing for sure is that women alone can’t solve this problem on their own… we’ll need men on board, all men, and that means getting them to first understand and then buy in to the benefits of gender equality at every level and be as committed to the change as much as we are. 

I don’t think we’re there yet (are we?) but we can surely lead the debate. 


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