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A change of hearts: Women at work

15 Sep 2017

A new phenomenon is shaking the Malaysian corporate world to its core. Smart employees no longer conform to the conventional organisational approaches that are supposed to determine their level of performance and thus yield success. Employees now carve out their own paths to success by opting out of the 8-to 5 rat race and setting their own terms. The old expression of working for a living has now become ‘work to live’.

Employees are demanding flexible working arrangements, even leaving for other firms in order to meet the demands of their personal lifestyles. Unlike previous generations of employees who were wedded ‘to death do us part’ to an employer, today’s generation creates their own Kaleidoscope Careers to suit their preferences. Kaleidoscope Careers are those created and defined by a person’s values, choices and limitations. Similar to an actual kaleidoscope, careers are dynamic and as people pass through life changes, careers are altered to suit these changes, rather than allow the organisation rule their lives.

The shift in attitude emerged not only as a result of issues of work-life balance, but also by the complex interaction among issues of authenticity (being true to oneself), balance (relationships and care-giving) and challenge (self-worth, career advancement).

The challenge is even greater for women. They are expected to meet the dual responsibilities of career and home, while the men are free of household tasks and demands. Women adapt and change their career objectives in accordance with relational needs and demands. They know their decisions have a major impact on those who are dear to them, while men are free to continue to pursue work challenges.

In 20 years Malaysia is set to witness a new development in the employment sector as more and more women switch jobs to adapt to their personal lifestyles. This trend will be increasingly pronounced and observable when more new mothers are forced to shoulder more responsibilities than their other halves. New mothers are not just expected to raise children and bring bread to the table, but also to take on the role of caretakers for their entire family. Such new responsibilities have more often than not forced career-focused women to make adjustments in their career, even switching from their current profession to another that will help them fulfil their newly acquired roles and responsibilities, hence the term ’change of hearts’.

According to Prime Minister Najib Razak, “to build economies that are both sustainable and successful, it is clear that women should play a lead role” (Razak, 2013).  However, the current female labour force participation rate in Malaysia is 53.6 percent compared to 70 percent in Thailand and 60 percent in Singapore despite the fact that women make up almost half the Malaysian population (Yeoh, 2014)

To enhance female participation in the local workforce, several measures have been proposed, though the benefits seem to accrue only to companies rather than career women. Among the propositions offered are flexible working arrangements, telecommuting, and, of no less importance, the setting up of nurseries in and around the workplace. Although these propositions are deemed fair and just, they fail to take into consideration the work demands and the pressures faced by working mothers.

Questions arise on the effects of flexible work arrangements on women. Will these flexible employees be perceived in the same manner as their full-time colleagues, or would they only be looked upon as job-sharers? Would the flexible work arrangements be able to provide job security? Or would they be dismissed should a downturn in the economy occur? Moreover, although presented as a convenience, flexible work arrangements also require setting up of home offices. Who is responsible for these overhead expenses? And since work and home spaces are no longer separate in such arrangements, how do flexible workers draw boundaries on how much time is spent at work? Telecommunication technologies such as email and mobile phones are well known for prolonging and extending the work day: workers are expected to be on call or reachable at all times even when outside the office. Given that flexible work is highly reliant on such technologies, do such arrangements necessarily deliver the work-life balance they promise?

This article suggests a substitute explanation to the Kaleidoscope career model that can match the concerns of workers with the demands of their careers. This model fits women's careers well and serves as a means of understanding how women operate relationally with others in both work and non-work domains. Similar to a kaleidoscope’s changing patterns when the tube is rotated, women are able to modify their career patterns by changing different aspects in their lives to rearrange their roles and relationships (Mainiero & Sullivan, 2005). The strategies that women executives can use to increase their career success, as well as how organisations can create an improved workplace that will attract and retain talented women, is discussed below.

A recent posting in www.utusan.com.my described the case of Elsa Austin (28). A career woman who became pregnant, Elsa chose to quit the corporate world. According to the talent recruitment coordinator of a large bank, that drastic decision had to be made because Elsa wanted to breastfeed her child fulltime and was reluctant to leave her newborn with a babysitter. Her decision to take a three-year break was one she has never regretted. Now that her child has grown, Elsa has since rejoined the workforce, and is thus able to earn her own income.


The author of this article also took a 360-degree turn in her high-profile career where she was lucratively rewarded and enjoyed a private sector lifestyle with all its perks. However, a switch to the government sector had to be made to meet the family demands.

Ask any woman who has had a break in their career path on the challenges of re-entering the rat race and the answer is invariably the same. Most would ask ‘how do I start?’ Others would even say ‘I have lost my confidence’. It is a daunting task to some since too many changes are taking place too rapidly. Preparing for re-entry into the workforce is hard, but women can prepare themselves using the following strategies and tactics:  

Make preparations before going back to work and attend as many seminars as possible on career and motivation.

Project confidence and make sure you have the company’s profile. Use social media to search for job opportunities. Branding yourself is of utmost importance.

Use appropriate channels for job applications. Enquire with friends, surf websites, attend career fairs and leave your name with recruiting companies.

1.       Make ample preparation on how to manage the family. Discuss with family members the pros and cons of going back to work. Be ready to face whatever situations either emotionally or physically displayed by family members. Enhance the support system through sharing with family and friends.

Companies could also be proactive and play a major role in assisting women to pursue their career paths. The following are steps companies can take to enhance prospects for women:

1.       Take the career interests of women employees seriously. Highly educated, ambitious women do not differ greatly from men. They are just as ambitious as men. Governments, organisations and employers need to recognise that women have a right to work and hence should support women’s participation and leadership in decision-making.

2.       Identify institutional barriers and eliminate them. For example, requiring late evening meetings disproportionately affects women. Unfortunately, many career development programmes are not consistent with the needs of minority and non-minority women. Many of these programmes underestimate the role played by family responsibilities in the lives of many women. Similarly, some programmes assume that career paths are continuous. However, the need to stop working for a time to attend to family needs will often punctuate the career paths of many people.

3.       Inflexible promotional ladders (such as ‘You must work eight years of 50-hour weeks to apply for a position as partner’) can put women—who often have more responsibility for child-raising chores—at a disadvantage. One solution is to institute career tracks (including reduced hours and more flexible year-round work schedules) that enable women to periodically reduce their time at work, but remain on a partner track.

4.       Improve opportunities for networking and mentoring. As an example, in 2011 the Ministry of Finance and Economics in Germany launched a pilot project called ‘WING’. This project was established to provide assistance to women engineers and scientists who had taken a career break due to family demands. The programme involves training, networking and certification to enhance competence for future job applications, including courses on project management. On top of that they arranged round tables with companies to facilitate women to mingle and network with industry practitioners. Likewise, the Daphne Jackson Trust (UK) extends fellowships to science, technology, engineering and mathematics professionals who have taken a break of two years or more to return to a career in research. The fraternity combines mentoring and retraining to enable women and men to acquire the skills and confidence they need to return to their careers or to compete for positions.

5.       Finally, institute flexible schedules to provide women with the opportunity to successfully meet their obligations at home and at work. A 2016 report from the ILO states that women, despite being employed, still shoulder the major burden of unpaid household chores (ILO, 2016). This restricts their capacity to increase their participation in formal ‘waged and salaried work’. Therefore, it would be worthwhile for governments to invest in basic infrastructure and measures to balance work and family commitments.

To encourage women to remain active in the workforce and contribute to the economy, the government can also introduce several policies and measures. For a start TalentCorp’s former Chief Executive Officer, Johan Mahmood Merican, stated that employers who are ready to accept career women who intend to make a comeback after a long break should be entitled to a Workforce Outsourcing Grant and a Work Retention Grant (http://mystarjob.com/articles)

Initial moves like these might see a slight, if not radical, improvement in the statistics of women in the labour force.


Junaimah Jauhar is a senior lecturer in Human Resource Management at the Graduate School of Business, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.




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