Op-ed: Surviving KL as a woman

Erna Mahyuni muses on how tough women have to be to get ahead in this city, and wishes employers wouldn’t ask about her plans for her ovaries
Woman in the city
Photo: YiuCheung/iStock
By Time Out KL contributors |

‘How are you doing?’

People ask me that a lot. My one-word answer would be: surviving. It’s an answer I give earnestly, frankly. Yet they laugh and think I’m being droll.

Being a woman in KL to me feels a whole lot like a matter of survival. Concrete façades aside, the city to me has always felt like a jungle. Stop moving, let your guard down, and something will get you.

I moved to West Malaysia from East Malaysia in the late ’90s and though my homeland is less developed, I’ve always found this side of the South China Sea far more savage.

To survive in KL (as a woman) you need more than a set of outfits – you need a wide array of personas, masks you change out for different situations.

Ah, how different is that from being a man? From being professional in the workplace to being a man’s man with the guys?

Men for one don’t get asked at job interviews if and when they plan to reproduce.

I never can quite get over it – being asked the same overtly personal and sexist questions at interviews. Am I married? Do I plan to be? Will I choose to stay home once I have kids? Will late nights be a problem once I’m a mother?

Men don’t get asked if their virility will affect their work performance nor will their testicles determine their career progression.

Malaysia’s women are pretty educated – there are far more women in our universities and a very high percentage finish, at the very least, the basic 12 years of schooling.

Yet women workers don’t even number half of our workforce despite comprising roughly half the population. It puzzles researchers but it doesn’t surprise me. After all, I’ve had potential employers quiz me about my future plans for my womb.

Once you get a job, there’re even more masks to wear. Too assertive? You’re labelled bossy or a bitch. Try to be personable and nice? Be careful, people might think you don’t have the drive or that you’re a pushover. Come into work a little cranky from missing your morning cuppa and you’ll hear someone wonder if it’s your ‘time of the month’.

'Is it impossible for a woman to get ahead? No. But it’s delusional to believe that it will be easy'

My mother left a promising career in radio because my father wanted her to focus on the kids. It was the same with a friend’s mother who had to leave a senior position in a big-name auditing firm, because her husband too wanted her at home.

It’s one thing for a woman to choose full-time parenting, but to be guilted into it? That’s hardly fair. Is it impossible for a woman to get ahead? No. But it’s delusional to believe that it will be easy. 

How did I start out? You could say it felt, most times, like I was trying to head down a path but kept falling over, shunted onto other paths.

I trained in IT, skipped lectures just to steal more hours in the computer lab, did my honours thesis in search engine algorithms.Yet when I showed up at interviews, it was all ‘Oh, you speak English so well! Have you considered marketing?’ Then the dot-com bubble burst and I became just one of hundreds of unemployed techies.

I temped as a receptionist, specialising in last-minute jobs that paid RM10 an hour. One day, the temp agency called me up and asked if I would consider filling a position as a clinic nurse. Oh, I was so angry. I yelled at the temp recruiter I had met so often to pick up my claims, to get my next assignment. ‘Did you even read my résumé? Did you even consider whether I was actually qualified?’

Apparently being well-groomed and able to speak nicely on the phone made it so that all I was qualified for was to be seated at reception, whether at a clinic or some other office somewhere.

So I grew out of being nice. I left the smiley, receptionist face in the cupboard. My new mask had fangs; I paired them with claws. I’m intimidating, people tell me. Yet they’re never too intimidated to give me work or opportunities.

‘So I have to pretend to be someone else?’ a young friend asked. It’s not pretending, I told her. It’s just a persona – one you can put on and take off. Like you would wear a lab coat or a hard hat.

That’s what this jungle forces you into – nice doesn’t get you far career-wise. It’s a pity and a shame that women occupy very few top leadership positions in this country. There are of course exceptions: feisty Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, accolade-collector and bank governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz among them.

For some women, though, going home from work requires slipping into another persona. The mother persona. The wife persona. The attentive girlfriend persona. The dutiful daughter persona.

It never really gets easier. Yet it’s a comfort these days that people are more openly questioning gender roles, gender norms. That people are realising they don’t have to keep putting themselves into different boxes, boxes they didn’t choose.

In a world that’s constantly trying to shape you into someone else and forcing you to conform to norms you had no say in forming, it’s liberating to just be who you are. That is, ultimately, the advice I try to give people who ask me for career advice.

‘Be who you are, follow your star.’ It sounds simplistic but it’s the truest bit of knowledge I’ve gleaned after years in the workforce. It’s a lesson that took me years to fully assimilate. Masks, personas and expectations weigh you down after a while. But there will come a time, if you’re brave enough, when you’ll be able to be truly yourself in a world that makes you feel you can’t be.

To be the kind of woman they want to be should be a freedom for any and every woman. Who, in their right mind, wouldn’t want to be free?

Erna Mahyuni is a writer, and columnist for The Malay Mail Online. Read her musings at ernamahyuni.com or follow her on Facebook (fb.com/ernathepage) and Twitter (@ernamh).