Sarah Palin meet Melissa Ooi ’99 — a career woman in Malaysia who is “going for it.”Married, in her early 30s and the mother of a young child, Ooi is a finance manager for Dell Computer, helping to develop best accounting practices for operations in Dell’s Asia Pacific Japan region. Her ambition, to move up the corporate ladder, is becoming more common among women in Southeast Asia. But it is a break from the traditions of those countries, where working women were expected at some point to put their careers aside and turn to their families.
Instead they are trying to do both, pursuing new opportunities as Malaysia becomes more involved in the world economy. Just as Palin’s run for vice-president while being the mother of five children renewed discussion about career women trying to “have it all” in the U.S., so too there are questions in Malaysia.
“In my part of the world the traditional values and traditional view of women is still very strong,” says Ooi. “Women hold positions, but there will be a time when they will say, ‘I’ve done enough. I’m going to stay home and take care of my family.’”
Ooi says that there are women who choose not to have families and focus on their careers. But the decision to aim for senior management while raising a family — “Going for it,” as she says — is still relatively novel and even a source of debate among women of her own generation.
“It’s a very complex society right now,” she says. “I have friends who are very traditional who get married at 20 and have five kids and decide not to work and tell me my place is at home. We’re still trying to strike a balance and achieve that equality for women.”
The split is often determined by post-secondary school experience. Ooi went abroad for her education. Many of her colleagues have experience overseas. Her husband is Malaysian, but also attended a university in the United Kingdom. They believe they’re more “westernized” than other members of their generation who remained in Malaysia.
As tradition slowly yields to what Ooi calls a “modern” view of women in the workplace, government and industry in Malaysia are becoming more accommodating to women. Government employees can take as much as three years maternity leave and return to their jobs. A federal law has been proposed expanding maternity leave for private sector employees from 60 to 90 days, and more employers are providing amenities such as nursing rooms and daycare facilities.
All of that has enabled more career-minded women to stay in the workplace and increased their numbers in middle management positions. But Ooi is looking beyond. “We tend to see fewer women in senior management positions at the moment,” she says. “I guess that can change in the next couple of years and I hope I’m one of them.”