IWD 2024 recap: Options’ inaugural women’s forum discusses ways to close the gender gap

Many voices make a vibrant buzz at The Edge and Options’ first International Women’s Day Forum.

From left: Sharon Teh (The Edge), Dr Anita Ratnam, Beh Gaik Lean, Norazzah Sulaiman, The Edge Media Group publisher & group CEO Datuk Ho Kay Tat, CEO & president of Mercedes-Benz Cars Malaysia Amanda Zhang, country manager of Cartier Malaysia Antoine Berardi, Mint Lim, Lina Tan, Nadirah Zakariya, Tan Sri Mazlan Othman and Clémence Hecquet (Photo: Low Yen Yeing/The Edge)

There is room at the top for every woman who wants to carve her own space in whatever she chooses to do. Whether she is standing on the shoulders of giants, side by side with peers, or even a step behind the forefront, she can make a difference in myriad, meaningful ways.

That is the charge you feel in a room full of dynamic, top-notch ladies who know their worth and are gathered to share how they got where they are, and listen to others with different journey stories.

The energy at the International Women’s Day Forum 2024 held on March 11 was animated and infectious. Organised by The Edge and Options to celebrate the 49th edition of IWD, its theme, “Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress”, resonated with the guests, many of whom were grateful that people noticed their potential, believed in them and gave them a break. And, of course, there are the family members who undertook routine tasks at home so they could be free to fly high.

Partners, colleagues, friends, new acquaintances — together, these women form a sisterhood that is no stranger to discrimination and disparity in the workplace. Some are familiar with that “I’m-not-good-enough” feeling and struggled with imposter syndrome.


The energy of the event was animated and infectious (Photo: Low Yen Yeing/The Edge)

Somewhere along the way, however, they were given an opportunity and seized it, putting in their all — and here they are today. Empowered and in leadership positions, they are ready to invest in others because they know that with the right support, women can reach for the stars.

No one knows this better than Tan Sri Prof Emerita Dr Mazlan Othman, who bit down pain — she fell while hiking two days earlier and hurt herself — and lifted the audience sky-high with an inspiring talk about dismantling stereotypes, male dominance in science and educating girls in STEM subjects. She was director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, and founding director-general of Malaysia’s national space agency.

Earlier, The Edge Media Group publisher and group CEO Datuk Ho Kay Tat had welcomed guests to the inaugural forum before inviting Minister of Youth and Sports Hannah Yeoh to deliver the keynote address. Following that, Red Communications founder and chief content officer Lina Tan took the mike and traced her 25-year journey in the creative arts, pausing to recall, with humour, the many obstacles she had to overcome.

The third speaker Sattriya Dance Company co-founder Madhusmita Bora invited those present to stand and join her in chanting a hymn. That had a calming effect, besides shaking off any post prandial lethargy, and everyone was all ears as she spoke about pursuing journalism and dance, particularly Sattriya, an Assamese art form traditionally performed only by celibate monks.

Finally, Mint Lim spoke about how her struggle with dyslexia made her realise the importance of basic language skills. That led her to open Singapore-based School of Concepts, which is gearing for expansion.

There were two panel discussions on the programme, ably moderated by Freda Liu, who was also emcee for the forum. The first, titled “Barrier Breaks and The Road Ahead for Creative Women”, saw Beh Gaik Lean, co-founder and the chef-owner of Michelin-starred Aunty Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery, sharing her food journey, as did Layar Lucida founder Nadirah Zakariya and Narthaki.com founder Dr Anita Ratnam, who talked about their work in photography and dance respectively.

The second discussion saw Ho stepping on stage again, alongside Amanda Zhang, CEO and president of Mercedes-Benz Malaysia and head of region for SEA II, and Wendy Ting, managing director of group international business and group corporate banking for RHB. They had a discussion on “Nurturing Female Talent: The Key Role Managers Play in Creating Equal Opportunity and Fostering Group”, followed by questions from the floor on empowering individuals to close the gender gap and drive growth, personally and for the economy.

The afternoon waned but spirits remained high as guests got acquainted or caught up with old friends. Excited and inspired, they exchanged notes and business cards, and clicked away to store memories of the occasion.

Hopes of working together hung in the air, charged by the energy of connection. Well, who better to lend women a hand than they themselves? With luck, sweat and smarts, the sparks ignited at this IWD forum could grow into a flame that brings more female leaders together next year.


Welcoming diverse talents, great minds + strong voices


Datuk Ho Kay Tat, publisher and group CEO of The Edge Media Group (Photo: Low Yen Yeing/The Edge)


Befitting the mood of the occasion, a man who openly admits to being “overwhelmed” by women in the office and at home had the first word at the International Women’s Day Forum 2024 organised by The Edge and Options. Welcoming guests at Hilton Kuala Lumpur on March 11, Datuk Ho Kay Tat, publisher and group CEO of The Edge Media Group — one of a handful of brave guys present — acknowledged the “diverse talents, great minds and strong voices” gathered in the room. 

Then, taking his eyes briefly from the smartly clad ladies before him, each of whom could fill pages on the road she has travelled, he made special mention of those who, often unseen and unsung, contributed to the economy by doing full-time unpaid care and domestic work.

“Women form half the global population and play a pivotal role in the economy, despite continuous attempts in some parts of the world to limit their participation,” Ho said.

Leading an organisation that has steadfastly invested in women since it started 30 years ago, the veteran newsman let the numbers speak for themselves. “I cannot be more pleased to tell you we have a very strong representation of women in our company. They make up 53% of our staff force, but hold 80% of the 20 most senior positions in the company.

“Yes, I am absolutely overwhelmed by women at work — and I must say at home too as we have three children, all daughters!”

That raised rousing applause as Ho moved to more figures, this time from Bursa Malaysia. “Participation of women in the boardrooms of top limited companies doubled from 14% in 2015 to 31% today. And for all PLCs, the percentage has grown from 11% to 25%,” he said, attributing the achievement to guidelines set by the Securities Commission and the stock exchange.

Women have also stepped up and forward in politics, an area where they remain under-represented. The number of elected female representatives in parliament went up from 10% in 2013 to 13% two years later, but the increase was “far from satisfactory as 52% of registered voters and the population of the country are women. Perhaps, parliament should introduce rules to encourage greater participation in politics by women”, he pointed out.

But a handful of those who have dared go where others fear to tread have achieved great success in recent times. “Our guest of honour YB Hannah Yeoh is certainly one of them,” said Ho, before introducing the minister of youth and sports. 

First elected to the Selangor State Assembly in 2008 at the age of 29, Yeoh served two terms in the Subang Jaya constituency, until 2018. During her tenure, she made history by becoming the first woman to be elected speaker of the Selangor State Legislative Assembly, in 2013, and the youngest of any legislative body in the country.

Previously deputy minister of women, family and community development from the mid-2018 to early 2020, Yeoh is currently serving her second term as member of parliament for Segambut. More importantly, the law graduate from the University of Tasmania who practised in Australia and Malaysia before entering politics is a mother of two girls.

“She is, for sure, an inspiration for many young women to enter politics in the years ahead,” Ho said, to more applause as Yeoh walked up the stage to deliver the keynote address.


‘Find your own space + make it work’


Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh (Photo: Low Yen Yeing/The Edge)

Before we can begin talking about investing in women and accelerating progress, there has to be inclusion — equal access to opportunities for every girl, young and old, wherever she may be. Only then will she be able to find her own space and make it work for her.

That was the thought Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh shared with guests at The Edge and Options’ International Women’s Day Forum 2024, a gathering of ladies at the top of their field, from the arts to social work, enterprise, banking, luxury jewellery, automobiles and more.

Looking at the overarching theme for IWD this year, “Inspiring Inclusion”, Yeoh emphasised the need to not just celebrate those who have broken the glass ceiling, but also ensure that women from all walks of life are not left out. 

“In sport, there is always a tendency to focus on high performance, women who have made the nation proud by winning medals ... However, we must also be mindful of others out there, like our mothers and grandmothers, who perhaps have little exposure or few opportunities when it comes to leading an active lifestyle.” 

With inclusion in mind, the ministry launched free Senamrobik Komuniti sessions at PPR (people’s housing projects) across Kuala Lumpur on March 9, in conjunction with IWD, celebrated a day earlier by the United Nations since International Women’s Year, 1975.

The community aerobics programme will run weekly until December 2024 at 43 locations throughout KL. It will be money well spent, Yeoh said, because of its potential to have a huge impact on communities, particularly homemakers who find it difficult to venture out for exercise. Holding sessions at PPR makes it convenient for women to participate and, hopefully, ignite their interest to engage in a more active lifestyle.

Grandmothers have been tripping down from apartments in slippers to flex their muscles, she noted. Some even asked if she could sponsor jerseys for them. “They don’t have clothes that can absorb sweat. I have seen women coming in tudung that cannot absorb sweat too. These are one of the limitations we don’t think about when we organise a sports event.

“I would encourage everybody to constantly look around at how they can play a part in removing limitations and barriers for others who cannot get to the table. The Ministry of Youth and Sports is also committed to making sure that women have a seat at the table when it comes to decision-making in sports,” added Yeoh, who assumed her post in December 2022.

This year, when the ministry announced its plans to work on sports for senior citizens, people asked if she had forgotten her role, and why a minister for youth was looking at the elderly.

“I say, sports is for all. It’s for your grandmother and auntie in your hometown somewhere. Every time I go to Putrajaya, I’m thinking about your daughters and what kind of industry I want to create to best support them.”

The Women in Sports action plan introduced in 2021 outlined 19 strategies and 45 initiatives aimed at widening their roles as a way to expand into senior leadership positions. 

“By promoting women’s involvement in coaching, team management and policy formulation we are building a diverse and supportive ecosystem that nurtures talents on all fronts, ensuring their contributions are always felt on and off the field.

In 2023, 14 women were appointed to the boards of various agencies in her ministry, achieving a representation of 30.6% compared to only 19% in 2022, Yeoh shared, adding that targeted programmes and policy studies could break down barriers and create an inclusive environment for women. 

“When I was first appointed to this position, all the comments I read compared me to KJ [former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin] and Syed Saddiq [Abdul Rahman, member of parliament for Muar]. 

“I look at myself; I’m 45, I cannot do Saddiq or KJ. So I have to find my own space and make it work for me in the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

“Be confident of who you are because you are different for a reason. And there’s a reason you are put in that space: You bring a different perspective to the table. And don’t be afraid to chart those changes.”

Change can come about in discreet ways, as happened after young female athletes asked what they could wear when they were having their period.  A simple all-girls town hall was then called, during which “secret, practical questions” they could not ask their male coaches were aired. 

“Immediately after the meeting, we set up a women’s clinic at the Kuala Lumpur Sports City in Bukit Jalil. Every week now we have a gynae going there to see the athletes.”

An initiative like this could go a long way to ensure continued participation by female athletes, said Yeoh, who is also hopeful that having the first childcare centre at the same location would encourage more women to come forward to coach. “A lot of coaches stop because they cannot cope. There is no [facility] that can provide childcare for them during practice hours.”

Ultimately, ensuring a safe environment for everyone involved in sporting activities is of utmost importance to her. Thus the Safe Sport Code launched last March by the ministry, which is going to the ground to educate and promote awareness.

There have been more than 1,000 signatories comprising state governments, sports associations, athletes as well as other ministries that have committed to adhering to the code — guidelines and standards that emphasise the roles and responsibilities of all parties in dealing with any form of harassment or abuse, from smoking and vaping to shouting and bullying.

Yeoh thanked the IWD Forum organisers for giving her the space to share what the ministry had been doing and hoped female leaders, wherever they were, would “continue to make Malaysia really a better place for our daughters”. Her two girls are the “voice of my conscience”,  she shared, commenting on her social media content and various other issues. 

“I want to assure you that when I look at where we are as a nation, we do have a lot of empowered girls, children who are not afraid to speak their mind. And I think we have done something right in the decades before to get where we are today.”

Acknowledging the many distinguished guests in the room, she said there was still a lot to be done to give women space at the top. “We need men and women to work together.
Men like Datuk Ho, [who believe] in this.” 


This article first appeared on Mar 25, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.


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