In 2013, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, a book that followed on from her 2010 TED Talk on how women are held back (and hold themselves back) in life and in work, and how to achieve their goals and create a more equal world. It caused a sensation.
“Gender inequality in the workplace is a global issue. That’s why when Sheryl Sandberg wrote the book Lean In, it resonated so well across all countries,” says Aysha Shujaat, President of Lean In Malaysia. It became the name of its own movement when Sandberg established the non-profit organisation LeanIn.Org, and the concept – a system of women in the corporate sphere supporting each other professionally and emotionally – took off worldwide with 35,000 circles in 165 countries.
The Malaysian chapter was started in 2015 by Sarah Chen and Abir Abdul Rahim (who were both officially recognised as regional leaders by Sandberg), and is powered by the Asia Women Circle. Lean In Malaysia is one of the regional leaders, boasting a membership of more than 4,000 people – both women and men – in 22 circles across the country, joining a network of more than 300,000 across Asia. Their vision and mission is to ‘Educate, Enable and Empower’ women in the workplace to achieve their personal and professional ambitions, doing this through customised programmes.
Among them are the boutique Masterclasses and Lean In Career Programme (LICP): the Masterclasses comprise of simulations, discussions and breakout sessions to support women in their leadership journeys with practical enhancements and upskilling opportunities. The LICP, on the other hand, is an individualised mentorship programme spread over an intense eight to 12 weeks, pairing 20 to 22 ambitious women with industry experts from partner companies. Aysha credits attending the first LICP in 2016 with helping her get back into the workforce after having a child and going on a career break from her previous role in a post-conflict democratisation consultancy. “The corporate breakthrough came on the second day of the launch, where this person saw me making a pitch and said, ‘We’re hiring – come join.’ That’s the power of creating platforms and support systems for people to come and be together,” she says.
President Ashley Suelyn agrees, adding that it gave her the confidence to ask herself if what she was doing was something she actually liked, to negotiate her pay and to switch to a different industry. “Lean In has made me come out of my comfort zone and explore different options,” she says. “And it’s also made me comfortable talking about things very openly, to voice my opinions and to talk on stage about Lean In – which I never would have done.”
It’s also an inclusive conversation that greatly values the input and the participation of male allies. The theme for 2018 is ‘Making the Mix Matter’, encouraging men to join the programmes and committees, as well as engaging more of them as speakers. Current male representation in the committee is at 10 percent, “…and we really want to see that grow to 50 per cent” adds Suelyn.
Two greater issues Lean In Malaysia also addresses are the problem of women dropping out of the workforce and the lack of women in senior management positions. “There’s plenty of research that shows women are underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline. Research also indicates between the ages of 28 and 40, the gap between men and women’s progress starts to widen dramatically – and that’s when women start to fall out of the workforce,” says Aysha. With three out of four women leaving the corporate world due to family commitments like motherhood or looking after elderly or sick family members (according to a 2014 study by TalentCorp Malaysia), a significant portion of the workforce is lost, as well as the necessary representation in higher management.
This is where Lean In Malaysia steps in. “I think, to a large extent, we are still at the raising awareness stage in Malaysia, about the discrepancies and how women are not coming back into the workforce after they deliver or have babies,” says Legal Director Sharmila Ravindran. “We are at the stage where we are still raising awareness and trying to educate women to understand there are options for them: there’s a network.”
This network of women is a diverse collection of nationalities, ages, and industries, with a wealth of collective knowledge, distributed throughout Malaysia in their own circles. They remain in constant contact via a dedicated WhatsApp group, advising and supporting each other in their struggles and achievements. It’s a genuine bond. Ravindran, who calls these women her ‘tribe’, says succinctly: “We have this common thread that binds us together, which is just about wanting to improve ourselves and improve our society, and to be better at what we do.”
TEXT FLAVIA GALEOTTI
PHOTOGRAPHY ROBIN LIEW
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW