Can workplace flexibility have an effect on women's lifestyles and work-life balance?
The development process underwent fundamental changes and the international economy had a different impact on the employment of men and women during the post war period. This resulted in the last two decades witnessing an increase in female labor force participation rates in developed and developing countries. But as more women joined paid labor, juggling work and home became a major challenge for women who had to compromise on either their career or their family. Can flexibility at the workplace have an effect on work-life balance and help reduce the double burden of these women? Will it have any effect on women's lifestyles and work-life balance? This study conducted in the Klang Valley, the central business hub of Malaysia is based on a mixed method approach. For the quantitative approach, self-administered questionnaires were distributed to women employees working in organizations which have flexible working arrangements and organizations with fixed working arrangements. A random sample of 329 female employees from 12 selected organizations in the services sector was identified. To complement the statistical data and to get an in-depth view of certain issues, 20 women were interviewed. The study set to examine whether flexibility at the workplace may have an effect on women's ability to balance work and family responsibilities. It further examines whether working arrangements may have an effect on lifestyles of working women. Finally, the paper concludes with discussions on possible workplace reforms which may have an impact on women's ability to balance work and family responsibilities. Findings from logistic regression analysis revealed that workplace flexibility is preferred by women who are more educated, at the higher end of the occupational status and who earn a higher income. The interviews showed that workplace flexibility can change the quality of life of working women especially, married women who have young children.

Keywords: work place flexibility, flexible working arrangements, Malaysia

Article Type:
Work and family
Flexible work hours
Subramaniam, Geetha
Maniam, Balasundram
Ali, Ershad
Pub Date:
Name: International Journal of Business Research Publisher: International Academy of Business and Economics Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business, international Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 International Academy of Business and Economics ISSN: 1555-1296
Date: July, 2011 Source Volume: 11 Source Issue: 4
Accession Number:
Full Text:

In the Malaysian economic development process, export-oriented industrialization policies and an increase in the educational attainment of women since the 1970s, have contributed significantly to an emerging pattern of dual career families. However, female labor force participation rates have stagnated at a constant rate of 46-47 per cent in the last three decades. Latest official statistics show that the labor force participation rate (LFPR) for women was 46.4 per cent in 2010 (a slight fall from 47.8% in 1990). This is considered low in sharp contrast to the neighbouring South East Asian countries of Thailand, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore where the corresponding figures are 66%, 60% and 56%, respectively.

Statistics also reveal that more than 40 per cent of the women in Malaysia have worked before and a closer look reveals the existence of an inverted U shape for female labor force participation (FLFP) rates showing a decline in participation rates after the age of 30 years. Female labor force participation in Malaysia does not reveal evidence that women are leaving the labor market in large numbers to become homemakers. The issue here is that women in their 30s, who have a minimum of 11 years of schooling and married, are leaving the labor market to become homemakers to be replaced by foreign labor and the outsourcing industry.

Malaysian women are still under-represented in the job market with the female labor force participation rate remaining at approximately 47 per cent throughout much of the past three decades". (UNESCAP, 2007). One of the possible reforms stated in the UNDP report was to have less rigid job arrangements to encourage more women into the workforce, thus boosting national productivity and economic growth. The main focus of this paper is to examine whether flexibility at the workplace may have an effect on women's lifestyles and their ability to balance work and family responsibilities. This is investigated in the context of whether demographic and socio economic factors have an effect on women's preference for flexible working arrangements at the work place. It finally concludes with discussions on whether child care facilities and other family friendly policies might have an effect on women's lifestyles and work life balance.


2.1 Why some women work and some don't?

The neo-classical theory of household choice and resource allocation is useful to explain the factors which influence the female labor force participation of women. As the aim of all households are to maximise total utility by optimal allocation of resources, some factors will have a greater influence on women's decision to participate in paid work outside the home. Women work due to economic and social reasons. In the 1990s, Ariffin (1994) clearly spelt out that it was women from poor households in Malaysia who resort to wage labor to supplement family income and in the course were inadvertently affected by wage differentials and gender discrimination. While poor female-headed households who have very little access to alternative child care support systems have a high opportunity cost, working outside actually aggravated their dual-role burden.

Not all women leave their jobs after childbirth (Kaplan & Granrose, 1993). Many debates and discussions on what causes women to exit the labor market point to family responsibilities either directly to dependent care or indirectly due to employer policies (Voydanoff, 1988). However, the fact remains that inflexibility at work place and inability to balance work life and home career are important factors why married women leave the labor force (Kaur, 2004, Ariffin, 2009).

2.2 Flexible Working Arrangements (FWAs)

The workplace of the future is one that will be driven by new energy and with vision and workplace flexibility and worker-friendly management strategies are becoming more important now. Flexible working arrangements (FWAs) are alternatives to the traditional "9-to-5" workday, the standard workweek, or the traditional workplace. FWAs are work practices (explained by the employer in employment policies and contracts) that allows the employees a certain degree of freedom in deciding how the work will be done and how they'll coordinate their schedules with those of other employees.

There is no single definition of FWA but it encompasses working arrangements which are nonstandard and can be divided into two categories. Firstly, scheduling of hours worked, such as alternative work schedules which consist of flexi time and compressed workweeks and arrangements regarding shift and break schedules. Secondly, flexibility in the amount of hours worked, such as part-time work and job sharing; and thirdly flexibility in the place of work, such as working at home, tele-working or at a satellite location.

FWAs are low cost employee benefits that improve productivity and motivate a changing work force. Most of the reasons why female employees want FWAs center on family responsibilities and work-life balance (Liechty & Anderson (2007). Olmsted and Smith (1994) highlighted how some companies can attract and motivate talented employees will be able to succeed compared to other companies. Recent trend studies show that the new concept part-time work influences the ability of mothers with young children to balance work and family responsibilities (Almer & Single, 2003). Mothers will be less likely to leave the labor market if more part-time jobs are available. This concept of part-time jobs and family friendly policies such as FWAs will enable more women to contribute to both work and home. With more flexible work and part-time work, literature suggests that possible benefits for these young mothers will be better monitoring of the children and more equality time with the children.

The question of whether workers "choose" and prefer FWA to standard employment has been widely explored in the western countries (Almer & Single,2003; Cole,2006) but less is specifically known about whether FWAs are a solution to work-family demands in Malaysia. The existing literature enables a few conclusions to be drawn.

* Industrialization in Malaysia has to a large extent increased women's participation in the labor force and to a certain extent exploited women who end up in the lower rung of the production process.

* Women are moving from the private sphere to the public sphere but some women are unable to balance work and home and are withdrawing from the labor market.

* In countries like Malaysia, the present labor market issues of concern include a big and growing foreign labor market and outsourcing does not encourage re-entrants into the labor force. As women try to juggle both the reproductive and non-reproductive roles, many working women have created a high demand for foreign domestic workers over the last two decades to take over the non-economic roles. Doesn't this mean that Malaysian women are actually interested to work in paid labor?

* Finally and most importantly, studies in Malaysia and other parts of the world have shown that FWAs are beneficial to both employers and employees. While the Ministry of Human Resources is encouraging the private sector to implement flexible working arrangements and part-time work, many employers are actually not cooperating.

Based on the above description, a few questions to be explored in this study are: how can flexible working arrangements help working women achieve work life balance? If more organizations implement some form of FWAs, will it help more women to participate in paid labor? Will family friendly policies such as FWA have an effect on women's lifestyles and work life balance?


The survey was conducted among women who were in paid work in selected organizations. Firstly, a list of companies in the services sector which have FWAs was prepared based on information provided by the Malaysian Employers Federation. This was further finalised from focus group discussion. The organizations were sub-grouped further and the organizations which were identified were from the Finance, Logistics, Petroleum Shared Services and professional sub-sectors.

Using the purposing sampling technique, a total of six organizations which have FWAs were identified in the Klang Valley. Using the comparative method approach (Lijphart, 1971) the corresponding six organizations which have fixed working arrangements or non FWAs were identified at random. To reduce selection bias, random sampling was done within each organization where the women employees were selected at random by the human resource manager. For this survey, 500 questionnaires were distributed, 250 to FWA organizations and 250 to non FWA organizations. The response rate was slightly lower for the non FWA compared to the response rate from FWA. The total sample size was 359, which consisted of 56 per cent from non-FWA and 44 per cent from FWA.

The area of research was the services sector and was limited to organizations located in the Klang Valley, which is the central business region of the country and the capital of Malaysia are located. This conurbation has a total population of over 7.5 million and is the heartland of Malaysia's industry and commerce. The Klang Valley is home to a large number of migrants from other states within Malaysia and foreign workers largely from neighboring Asian countries.

The questionnaire consisted of 4 parts: Part A consisted of 5 items on the demographic profile of the respondents. Part B consisted of 2 items on the income level; Part C consisted of 3 items on family responsibilities and Part D consisted of 3 questions to assess the decision making of women's exit from the labor market. Data was analysed using the SPSS 16 software. Logistic regression analysis was used to examine which factors had any significant influence on women's decision making behaviour. Descriptive statistics and cross tabulations were used to support the findings. Qualitative interviews were also conducted to get a better insight on women's lifestyles and work-life balance. From the sample of 359 respondents, 20 respondents were identified for a one-to-one interview which lasted for a minimum of half an hour to 45 minutes.


As a group, the women who participated in this study maintained a middle class lifestyle, majority were highly educated with a university degree, and most of them had at least two children. The demographics of the respondents, such as age, educational level and marital status were important determinants which influenced the type of working arrangements employees would prefer. Most (46%) of the respondents were in the age group of 20-29 years, while nearly 40 per cent were women who were in the 30-39 years age group. The age group portrayed in this sample size conforms to the trend of the female labor force participation in Malaysia.

In terms of marital status, 60 per cent of the respondents were married women and out of this sample, 83 per cent of them have children. All the respondents had a minimum eleven years of schooling and more notable is that nearly half (49%) of the women in the study had a university degree. More than 50 per cent of the respondents were at the executives or officers level while 18 per cent were at the management/professional level. This speaks well for women and shows that women are interested to work and shoulder responsibilities at the work place, given the chance. Majority of the respondents were in the executive level; however 39 per cent of them earned below RM 2000. However, it is encouraging to note that about 26 per cent of them earned more than RM4000 (1USD is equivalent to RM3).

In terms of family responsibilities, 83 per cent of the married women had children. In fact 50 per cent of them had at least two children. Micro level studies in Malaysia on working women exiting the job market have shown that taking care of children is the main reason some women do not want to continue working (Subramaniam, 2010). While 42 per cent of the respondents have at least one child below 5 years old, a big 46 per cent of the respondents have to take care of the elderly parents. A majority of 86 per cent of the respondents were interested in FWA at their workplace.


A logistic regression analysis was done to examine whether demographic factors, socio-economic factors, family responsibilities and working arrangements had an influence on the uptake of FWA among women employees in the selected organizations. It was noted that women who are more educated, holding management posts and earning a higher income are more interested in FWA at the workplace. Besides, women employees in FWA organizations were more interested in FWA compared to women working in non-FWA organizations. This could be attributed to the reason that they were quite happy with their job and working arrangements really did not make a difference. There was also a positive relationship between women who had young children and their interest in FWA. However, in this study family responsibilities such as taking care of young children and elderly parents did not seem to have a significant relationship on the women employees' uptake of FWA at the work place.

Interviews were carried out randomly to to examine the objectives of whether working arrangements have an effect on lifestyles and work-life balance. The qualitative study supported the quantitative study and further identified that there are a range of issues which can lead to the well being of working women. Generally, most of the respondents want to work and be economically independent but they also want to achieve a good work-life balance. While some respondents are more successful in juggling work and home, some are still trying to cope with whatever they are doing, hoping to achieve work-life balance one day.

Broadly speaking, the present analysis shows that work-life balance is achieved with a more encouraging tone from those respondents who practice FWA. Those who are working in FWA organizations are able to manage work and household chores and caring responsibilities better. Findings also reveal that respondents in FWA organizations are able to spend more time for family. Juggling household chores without any help is really a major problem for working women and if they are in non FWA organizations, commuting and traffic jam aggravate their problem and add to further stress. There is diversity in their opinions, but still many commonalities emerged among the respondents' views on the costs and benefits of FWA. While many of the respondents experienced work-life balance barriers, some common threads and themes revealed that FWA will be a good option towards achieving work life balance.

The results show that working arrangements actually did not have any effect on the lifestyles of the women in terms of time spent on socializing, time spent with friends and time for recreation. These activities were more influenced by their marital status. Most of the married women were generally not interested to socialize. However, working arrangements did have an effect on whether these working women have more or less time for personal needs. Majority of the women in non FWA organizations complained of less time for themselves but it was not so critical among women in the FWA organizations.


Findings from this study indicate that most women who are older, more educated and earn a higher income are more interested in FWA at the workplace. Women who have young children and are in their 30's are also the ones who are more interested in FWA Although the results show that women with family responsibilities are more interested in FWA, but it was not statistically significant. About 86 % of the respondents were interested in FWAs and more than 70% of them had not used it any form of FWAs before. Most of them were interested in flexi time and working from the home compared to tele-working and part-time work. Women in FWA had more time for themselves and a better work-life balance compared to their counter parts in the non FWA organizations.

Although findings of this study have several notable contributions which are relevant for the current debate to tap the potential of our own human resource, several issues remain. Firstly, the sample size could be increased to represent the whole of Malaysia. Secondly, the scope of this could be enlarged to include the rural sector as this study only concentrates on the urban sector in Malaysia. Finally, studies could be done to examine the condition in the manufacturing sector.

The Fisher-Clark's theory of structural change suggests that as the economy grows, it moves from the primary sector to the secondary sector and finally to the tertiary sector. Malaysia seems to be following the Fisher-Clark model moving from primary sector to the secondary sector and we are in the post-industrial stage where most people are employed in the tertiary or services sector. As Malaysia's vision is to move from an upper middle-income economy to a high income economy by 2020 under the New Economic Model (NEM), the main thrust is placed on the development of human capital. To become a high-income economy, the required human capital must be creative and innovative and this speaks well for Malaysian women who are educated with minimum eleven years of schooling and have a nature of being creative and innovative, to be a possible source of labor supply. If the issue is organizational reform in terms of working arrangements, it is time that Malaysian employers look into this issue.


The first policy recommendation here would involve working arrangements which are more family friendly to help women reconcile paid work with social obligations and allow women to have a .better work-life balance. Flexible working time, working from the home and permanent part-time work may provide married women with young children who require the greatest parental time, to balance work and caring responsibilities. Secondly, an enabling environment has to be provided by the government in a more institutionalized way to ensure that the child care system is more reliable to encourage women to leave their children in trustworthy hands. To this end, the state should play a more important role in implementing, regulating and monitoring child care and after school care centres which provide quality care for the children.


Almer, E.D, Cohen, J.R & Single, L.E., "Factors Affecting the Choice to Participate in Flexible Work Arrangements", Journal of Auditing: Vol 22, Issue1, pages 69-91. March 2003.

Ariffin, Jamilah. (Ed.) Women, Development and Poverty: Globalised Issues and Empirical Findings Relevant to Studying Poor Women in Malaysia. Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Publications, 1994

Cole, G. A., "Flexibility and the workplace: the battle to control working time, Managerial Law, Vol 48, Issue 1, pages 536-540, 2006.

Kaplan, E., & Granrose Cherlyn S. "Factors Influencing Women's Decision to leave an organization following Childbirth", Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1, pages 45-54. 1993.

Kaur, Amarjit, Costed Not Valued: Women Workers In Industrialising Asia, NewYork, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004

Liechty, J. M., & Anderson, E. A. "Flexible Workplace Policies: Lessons from the Federal Alternative Work Schedules Act", Family Relations , Issue 56, pages 304-317, 2007.

Lijphart, Arend, "Comparative Politics and the Comparative Method", American Political Science Review, Vol. 65, no. 3, 1971,

Malaysia, Labour Force Survey Report 2010, Department of Statistics, Malaysia. 2010

Olmstead, B., & Smith, S., Creating A Flexible Workplace--How to select & Manage Alternative Work Options. New York: American Management Association. 1994

Subramaniam, Geetha, Mohamad, Saadiah & Selvaratnam, Doris P., "Why Do Some Women Leave The Labour Force?- A Micro Perspective from Malaysia", Economic Bulletin, Volume 11, 2010.

UNESCAP, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, annual report. 2007.

Voydanoff, P. "Work Role Characteristics, Family Structure Demands, and Work/Family Conflict", Journal of Marriage and Family, Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 749-761. 1988.


Geetha Subramaniam is a Senior Lecturer (Economics) at the Faculty of Business Management, Universiti Teknologi MARA, Shah Alam, Malaysia and is pursuing her doctorate in the area of Development and Economics at the Department of Development Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Email:

Dr. Balasundram Maniam is a Professor of Finance and chair of the General Business and Finance Department. He obtained his B.Sc. in Computer Science and MBA from Arkansas State University and his Ph.D. in Finance from University of Mississippi. He has published in over 120 peer-reviewed journals and presented in over 200 international and national conferences.

Dr. Ershad Ali is Director of the Centre for Research in International Education, Auckland Institute of Studies, New Zealand. He received Master of Science degree from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh; Master of Engineering Science from the University of Melbourne, Australia; and Ph.D. in Economics from Massey University, New Zealand. His research interests include internationalization of education, international trade, development economics and technology transfer
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.