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Would you choose your career over motherhood?

Because for many of us, that's the choice

By Emma Chong Johnston | Published: 6 May 2016

Career or motherhood
Photo: Istock

Are you a working woman who would like to one day have children? Then at some point in your life you're going to face with some uniquely female decisions. As if there isn't enough to think about when having a baby, you'll also need to answer these questions: will you take the standard two months' maternity leave offered in Malaysia, and then return to work? If so, who will look after the baby? If you don't, will you leave your job entirely or will you attempt to take unpaid leave? At what point will you go back to full-time work? Ever? Can you support yourself and the baby without full-time employment?

For the past few decades, the situation for working mothers in Malaysia has largely been this: figure it out yourself. By law, companies are mandated to give women a minimum of 60 days fully paid maternity leave, as laid out in the Employment Act of 1955. Many new mothers will tell you this is not nearly enough. After those 60 days, it's up to individual companies to determine whether or not to provide reimbursement, or grant the leave at all.

Depending on the stage of life you're in, this probably sounds mildly worrying, completely horrifying, or yep, been there, done that. And here's some news that will alternately comfort and dishearten you: Malaysia is far from being the worst country in the world for paid maternity leave. Of course there's utopian Sweden, where newly introduced laws give parents legal entitlement to 480 days (approximately 16 months) of paid parental leave.

Of those, 90 days are reserved for fathers. On the flipside, the United States has been making headlines for other reasons: while new mothers are legally entitled to 12 weeks of maternity leave, it's unpaid. Paid maternity leave is given at the discretion of private companies; a 2012 study showed that 23 per cent of women were back at work two weeks after giving birth. In April this year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed legislation that would require companies in the city to offer six weeks of fully paid leave for new parents. That makes San Francisco the first and only city in the United States to do so.

And what about here? "There were talks last year about the government extending it to one year," says Myra Mahyuddin, the former editor-in-chief of Malaysian parenting resource website Makchic.com. "I don't know if there's been follow up on that." Myra says the birth of her son Noah two years ago prompted her to consider a move in jobs. "I went back to work after the two months. I was working with a media monitoring agency in KL, and the hours were from 6am to 3pm. But because I was a new mum, and my schedule was haywire, sometimes I'd be up in the middle of the night and it would kill me to get to work by 6am."

The hours prompted Myra to look for a new job, which led her to becoming part of the founding team of Makchic.com. Here she was able to negotiate more flexible hours that allowed her one day off a week, and the option to work from home. While managing the website, she became a confidante to a broad spectrum of mothers and mothers-to-be.

"A lot of them were reluctant to go back to work," Myra explained. "You spend 60 days at home, recovering, getting to know your baby, easing into your new role, and the idea of going back to work where you're going to be spending most of your time in the office and only seeing your baby after work – it's too sudden.

Some women feel that two months is not enough." Of course, not all women are the same. "Some women actually look forward to going back to work, because it's not easy easing into motherhood. Some may have a busy career, and then they took a break to have a child, and they want to get back to it. For some, what they've done is leave the job entirely after having a baby, so you see mums who have left the corporate world and become stay-at-home mums. For older mums, some of them have taken the opportunity to retire early and focus on raising their family."

Nabilah Bajunid, a mother of two who works in the Securities Commission, struggled to return to work after the birth of her children. "I would have taken extra leave if I could as I was still getting used to the changes in the first few months and juggling two children a year apart was not an easy task," she said. "My eldest was still very much a baby and yearned for my attention. However, work was also building up as we were short of manpower at the office and I made the decision to go back to work. Thankfully, my workplace is a mum-friendly organisation and they understand the commitments that mums have to face."

More and more Malaysian companies, especially those with women in upper managerial positions, are ushering in small, positive changes for working mothers. Mother-of two Fara Hasan, who manages communications at Tune Talk, helped to arrange for a dedicated breastfeeding room in her office building. Nabilah's workplace has a childcare centre. "I feel like many companies in Malaysia are aware and supportive of working mothers and this is great," Nabilah says. "However, there are working mothers who are being turned down for jobs simply because they have kids or are pregnant.

There's that worry that mothers will not work as hard as others and will be less flexible about working hours, and the fear of hiring a mother who may get pregnant again, leaving them with one less worker and a maternity bill to pay. But this is the old-fashioned way of thinking. It doesn't help that there are people who think that any woman who tries to combine a high-powered career and family will not be able to do it, or that she is an irresponsible mum for not being there with her small kids. Modern workplaces need to consider the special needs of working mothers, and change the orientation to gender-neutral and mother-friendly behaviour."

There is simply no concrete data to support the widely held assumption that motherhood affects the productivity or financial bottom line of a company. In fact, economists have found that mothers who receive paid maternity leave are more likely to return to work, and work longer hours. (Fara: "I was working two hours before I went into the labour room!") After all, it makes sense – treating any employee, expecting or otherwise, with fairness and compassion is far more likely to engender loyalty.

Telecommunications company Digi recently became the first company in Malaysia to offer six months of fully paid maternity leave. Based on that information alone, if you were a woman looking to work in telecommunications, your first choice would be pretty simple. "We are extremely proud to institute the new global six-month standard maternity leave here in Malaysia," Digi CEO Albern Murty told the New Straits Times. "It is our goal to attract and retain the best talent, male or female, and we are confident that the revised maternity leave policy will make Digi not only a very attractive place to work, but also a place in which women can build careers [and] continue to fill the ranks of our leadership."

Digi's move is cause for optimism for Malaysian mums. It may be the only company to be offering extended maternity leave at the moment, but as a highly visible and vocal brand, its scope for influence is huge. After all, Malaysia may not be the worst in the world for maternity leave but that's a perilously low benchmark to measure ourselves against. It comes down to a simple fact: women should not be forced to choose between their careers and their children. Minimal maternity leave and entrenched cultural prejudices against working mothers are doing nothing to make women feel confident and supported in their decisions regarding working and motherhood.

As Nabilah says, "I feel it's important for the government to educate companies on gender equality at work and to introduce structural changes to truly allow women the chance to make the choice that's best for them. We should acknowledge that, contrary to the traditional belief that a working mother is not a good mother, a working mother can, in fact, be a better mother."

Related: Op-ed: Why are women still expected to do more at home than men?
Related: How I do it: Michelle Lai


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