Malaysia is stepping up efforts to encourage women to stay at work, with a series of new initiatives to begin next year.

They include increasing maternity leave from 60 to 90 days, and tax breaks for women who return to work after a break of two years or more. To boost diversity at the top levels of business, government-linked organisations must ensure that women make up at least 30 per cent of their directors by 2020.

These measures are the culmination of several years’ worth of pressure on employers from campaigners to hire more women, particularly in leadership positions, as Malaysia seeks to transition to a high-income nation.

“Today, women are recognised as a pivotal resource to drive economic growth in many countries,” said a spokesperson for Talent Corp, a government body tasked with developing talent and capability in the country.

It said the target was to have 59 per cent of women of working age in the workforce by 2020, and 30 per cent of decision-making positions held by women. At present, around 54 per cent of women work but fewer than 20 per cent of top management posts are held by women.

The government began its push around five years ago, with initiatives including a training programme set up in 2012 to prepare women for board roles. Companies were encouraged to offer flexible work arrangements and given tax incentives to set up childcare facilities.

Some progress has been made, noted researcher Lim Ping Jun, who wrote a study on Malaysia’s labour force for the think-tank Penang Institute. She said the number of working women had risen, and more of them now hold high-skilled jobs. But the number in leadership positions remained stagnant, with women taking up less than 20 per cent of board positions in public-listed companies.

“It indicates that women are able to get good jobs but haven’t been able to climb higher, perhaps due to invisible barriers or because they drop out,” said Lim.

According to Talent Corp, many women leave their jobs in their late 20s or 30s to focus on family. But unlike some Asian countries like Japan or South Korea, they do not return to work later.

Talent Corp launched a career comeback programme in 2015, with job-matching programmes and other assistance to help women on a career break get back to work. This year, it also offered grants to employers with programmes to recruit and retain women returning from a career break.

It said more than 400 women had found jobs through its career-matching programme in sectors such as IT, HR, engineering and consulting. It also said that around 140 companies are actively recruiting career comeback women, while more than 60 have begun offering flexible work arrangements such as working half days or a shorter work week.

However, Lim noted that the more persistent, and often invisible, barriers that stop women from rising in their careers are more difficult to tackle – but doing so was necessary in order to achieve longer-lasting solutions.

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