Being normal doesn’t make it healthy: How gender stereotyping harms all of us

05 Mar 2022 04:55pm
Illustrative purposes (Source: 123rf)
Illustrative purposes (Source: 123rf)

On Feb 7, 2022, a Facebook post by Public Health Malaysia went viral for saying that a husband will feel “less comfortable” if his wife earns more than 40 per cent of the household income, and even “more stressed” if the family depends fully on the wife’s income.

Less than a week later, the Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff, shocked us with another video, where she suggested that husbands use “gentle but firm physical touch (sentuhan fizikal yang lembut tapi tegas) that educates lovingly” to correct the wives’ behaviours. Wives should also not confront their husbands and should remain silent to “not make things worse”.

This is concerning and insensitive in light of a 42 per cent increase in reported cases of domestic violence in Malaysia from 2020 to 2021. Most of such cases were conducted against women, according to statistics from the Social Welfare Department.

How can we forget that two years ago, the ministry also advised wives to speak like Doraemon when asking their husbands’ help in house chores, just to “avoid arguments” during the first MCO?

All the incidents above came after the disturbing rape joke in class by Ain Husiniza Saiful Nizam's teacher last year.

These are all solid illustrations of how gender stereotyping is institutionalised in Malaysia.

How gender stereotyping harms us

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a gender stereotype is a generalised preconception about attributes of women and men, or about the roles that they perform. This results in discrimination and sexism.

In Malaysia, gender stereotyping is so normalised that we sometimes don’t even realise that we are being sexist.

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One major reason behind this normalisation is the institutionalisation of gender stereotyping. The examples stated above are far from incidental. They revealed how gender stereotyping is institutionalised by leaders and passed down to younger generations.

Gender stereotyping is harmful to all of us. It limits both women’s and men’s capacity to fully develop their abilities, hence stopping society from tapping into its full potential.

When institutionalised and normalised, it creates unspoken barriers in society.

Many women still remain at a disadvantage in the workplace and at home. The female labour force participation rate (LFPR) in Malaysia as of December 2021 is 55.2 per cent (men: 81.7 per cent), trailing behind neighbouring countries like Vietnam (62.2 per cent), Singapore (61.2 per cent), and Thailand (59.2 per cent).

This could reflect that women are still expected to be the primary, if not sole, caregiver in the domestic sphere. It is common for married women to quit their jobs to “focus on the family”, where married men do not experience the same.

This hinders our nation's development. It was estimated that in 2015, the gender gap in labour participation resulted in a GDP loss of near 20% in Malaysia.

Even for working married women, gender bias still exists in certain positions. Malaysia recorded 37 per cent in terms of numbers of women holding senior leadership positions as of March 2021, which is higher than Asia Pacific’s 28 per cent. It is great progress, but women are still underrepresented in management as they are perceived as less “powerful” than men, and women’s abilities are questioned when they form their families.

The normalisation of gender stereotyping distorts our views on ourselves and others. Gender stereotyping is an unconscious bias, and it can solidify through teacher-student or parent-child interactions. For example, girls are more likely to be praised for being well behaved, while boys are more likely to be complimented for their ideas or being brave. When children grow up in environments as such, their self-perception will be shaped based on these stereotypes, affecting their academic performance, career options, and mental wellbeing.

Gender stereotyping is as harmful to men as it is to women, particularly to men’s mental health.

Men are taught to be less vulnerable, and showing emotions is often viewed as a sign of weakness. Hence, men will be less likely to seek mental health care than women. Toxic masculinity, also results of gender stereotyping, might be one of the factors behind the higher suicide rate among Malaysian men, compared to women.

What should be done

Malaysia is a party to UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) since 1995, but with reservations to article 9(2) that grants women equal rights with men for their children’s nationality, and part of the article 16(1) that grants equal rights for women to enter marriages.

The 12th Malaysian Plan (RMK12) also highlighted promoting gender equality, with mention of gender mainstreaming framework.

There is progress, but more is needed. A top-down approach is needed for Malaysia to put an end to gender stereotyping in the institutions, before seeing a change in our culture and mindset shaped by gender stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes.

Gender equality should be an overarching theme in our legislative framework. Currently, there are no explicit laws or policies on gender equality in Malaysia. As a starting step, CEDAW should be fully adopted to grant women's equal rights and to end discrimination against women.

A Gender Equality Law needs to be enacted.

The 5th UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) for Gender Equality must also be adopted in the policymaking process.

On the fiscal side, the government should tap into gender budgeting to reorient and close the gender gaps in fiscal resources allocation.

Education-wise, the current syllabus and textbooks in schools need a reevaluation to check for any gender-stereotyping contents. In most of the textbooks, families are always made up of a working father, and a mother as a housewife. This might not sound harmful, but it is subconsciously shaping children’s ideas of gender roles since a young.

Teachers should also be trained and assessed on gender issues, so students will not receive gender-stereotyping ideas in schools.

In conjunction with International Women’s Day 2022 themed “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”, we should recognize the vulnerability and also the potential for women and girls in upcoming global challenges such as climate change. This is why we need to start removing all sorts of gender stereotyping elements from our institutions, then consecutively from society at large.

A change in the institutions won’t take place overnight. It takes more than a few laws and policies to end gender stereotyping in the country; long-term plans and commitments are needed from the decision-makers. And, more importantly, we need to start now.

Low Zhen Ting is a research executive under the Economics and Business Unit at IDEAS Malaysia. His areas of interest include gender equality, development economics, and industrial organisation.

The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not represent the views or opinions of IDEAS Malaysia.

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