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At some point in life, you’ll come across an authoritative female schoolteacher figure destined to leave a memorable impression in their wake. One such lady who imparts that unmistakable air is Tan Sri Dr Sharifah Hapsah, the former vice-chancellor of the National University of Malaysia (UKM), who is better known for championing development of women in the workforce. 

Beyond her formidable exterior is is a woman whose passion lies in causes for female equality. The current president of the National Council of Women’s Organisation (NCWO) was an active participant in female reformative movements since the 1970s.

“My first encounter with inequality began when I first started work. Despite the same amount of work, my male colleague was given an allowance during a salary conversion. I wasn’t. On top of that, my salary was lower.”

Slighted, the medical doctor fought for equal pay for herself and her female colleagues, gathering proof, quotes and examples, and won her case. Armed with her medical prerogative and a passion to bridge equality, Tan Sri Sharifah embarked on a lifelong crusade to make the workplace better for women. These are 10 of her remarkable achievements and observations:

An injustice turned eye-opener 

“Discrimination at that young age opened my eyes to reality. Later on when I became a professor and a senior with a bigger scope of responsibilities, I could relate to what young women were going through as they began falling back when they got married and started a family." Her next cause of action was to show support and in her capacity, a comfortable working environment.

 On pioneering childcare services in workplaces

“UKM was the first to introduce a workbased nursery and childcare facilities. We converted a room and equipped it with breastfeeding facilities for new mothers, complete with nurseries. As a medical practitioner, I put my interest and training into effect by promoting breastfeeding, as an example.”

edit_MG_2325.jpg (original size) A voice for the masses

“Not everybody can express and articulate themselves, although they undergo the same experience as you do. They may not have the same passion, but if you foresee beneficial changes, you need to speak up. I make it a point to articulate issues in the proper manner so that they may be accepted by policy makers or investors.”

 The value for diversity begins in the work place

“A working culture that values gender diversity shows it in their practices and procedures. The government can create many policies but it’s the employers that must internalise these regulations. For example, when promoting staff, there must be a fair female nomination quota. Make sure women have opportunities to attend training and programs. Recognise that different gender representations in a room gives way to better discussions.”

 The qualities women possess and should be proud of

“Women have strong values and talents in negotiation, persuasion and consultation. Men take on more of a 'order, command and control' approach. With women in the mix, an organisation encourages the growth of new ideas.” 

 The future is bright

“Women are more educated than ever before. I see a crop of women who are a lot more confident and outspoken, but this shift signals a change of societal values. Based on the way future is being shaped, there’s a foresight of scientific advancement which women should explore.”

edit_MG_2304.jpg (original size)The qualities of a female leader

“There are four things women must understand: themselves, self-preparation, knowledge and articulation. They must have confidence, aspirations, be driven by goals. Strike a balance between career management and collective parenting.”

 Get acquainted with government policies

“I think the government has been very sensitive, providing women with support with a pool of incentives, such as tax breaks, back-to-work incentives, paternal and maternal leave, extended leave and so on. Sadly, Malaysia has the lowest workforce participation rate among women who drop out later on, due to family obligations.”

 Her proudest achievement

“Contributing to policy making. I put together proposals, help formulate national policy including the policy on 30% women in decision making. This move helped empower all sectors like health, community and economy.”

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Setting leadership example

“As a female leader I want to guide and encourage women to reach the next level that they aspire to be or are suited for. As former vice chancellor, I made sure we surpassed targets and went beyond having women in leadership positions to generate their movement to higher positions. For these, I’m very happy.”

(Slide right to view the quotes) 

As part of our International Women's Day tribute we speak to United Nations activist  Mary Shanthi Dairiam and her contributions to raising the awareness for domestic violence.

Credits: 

Words: Jessica Liew

Photography: Shaffiq Farhan