The glass ceiling phenomenon--does it really affect women's career advancement in Malaysia?

Author:Subramaniam, Geetha


Female participation in the labour force increased to 54.1% in 2015 compared to only 46.8% in 2010 (Department of Statistics, 2015). As Malaysia moves towards becoming an industrialised nation, the expansion of the financial and services sectors have created new job opportunities for all Malaysians including women in the urban economic areas. In recent years, the issue is no longer about female labour force participation but about more about women's positions at the management level and at decision-making level. They are still under-represented in top management and decision making posts in both the public and private sectors (Grant Thornton International Business Report, 2015). As women are empowered, due to better access to education, better potential for their career advancement is expected, but the number of women at top management level is still very low.

Malaysia has the most organisations without any women in senior management roles within ASEAN, with a study showing that almost one in three was bereft of women in such positions. According to a survey by Grant Thornton (2015), "The number of businesses without women holding senior leadership positions in Malaysia has been on an increase ever since year 2012 (21 per cent to 31 per cent)." The same survey also showed that only 26 percent of people in the senior management in Malaysia consist of women which is still the lowest among other ASEAN countries. Despite the encouragement by the government and the prime minister's call to see women making up 30 per cent of the boards of all public companies, and also initiatives such as the launch of the 30 per cent Club in 2015, the results of the survey clearly shows that lack of women in leadership is still an issue this year. (Malay Mail, 7 March 2016).

The low representation at top management posts could be caused by barriers due to personal reasons such as family responsibilities, family support or demographic factors such as age, education and marital status. Besides, the barriers could also be due to work challenges such as organisational culture and career advancement opportunities such as promotion opportunities, training, selection and recruitment methods. This phenomenon has been termed as the "Glass Ceiling" (GC) refers to barriers women face as they try to climb the corporate ladder. The Glass Ceiling sometimes refers to invisible barriers or artificial barriers women face that hinders them from progressing past a certain level. (Federal GC Commission [FGCC], 1997).

According to Ellen Teo the CEO of Union Energy in Singapore, "Asian culture hasn't matured enough to accept the fact that women can hold a job and also have a family." (Grant Thornton International Business Report, 2015).

This study attempts to understand the low number of women at management level in the public and private sector in Malaysia by examining whether there is a link between the challenges women face and their career progression to top management posts. Using descriptive analysis, this exploratory study tries to examine whether the Glass Ceiling phenomenon exists in the country. And if the phenomenon does exist, whether it is due to personal challenges or work challenges.


Labour market discrimination exists if individual workers who have identical productive characteristics are treated differently because of the demographic groups to which they belong. Smith (2006) said that gender discrimination in the labour market is alleged to take two prominent forms. First, women sometimes are suspected to earn less by the employers although they have the same experience, and work under the same conditions in the same occupations and this is labeled as wage discrimination. Second, women with the same education and productive potential are seen as shunted into lower-paying occupations or levels of responsibility by employers who reserve the higher paying jobs for men and this type of discrimination is called occupational discrimination. Occupational discrimination is the type of discrimination that is relevant to this study as women try to enter top management, they face some challenges and gender inequality.

Studies have identified several main factors or barriers that hinder women's ascent to top positions and decision making levels in an organisation. Some of the main barriers are responsibilities that women have towards family, cultural barriers between religious and racial matters, negative stereotype and leadership styles, and organisational culture in the workplace among co-workers and colleagues (Blair-loy, 2009; Clark, 2000; Hoobler et al., 2011; Schein, 2001). All of these barriers that hinder women's career advancement can be best described as "glass ceiling".

According to Aminah (2012), there has been an increasing trend for graduate intake, enrollment and output in Malaysia. A significant increase was recorded annually starting from 2002. Access to the graduate studies was enhanced by flexible modes of study such as distance learning, modular approach, and research mode either full time or part time. Religion is one of the factors that can hinder women's intention to enter top management. The fact that Malays are Muslim may have limited the rate of participation of Malays in the economy (Omar, 2004). In terms of family responsibilities, women may be disadvantageous beyond a certain level in the hierarchy where they are expected to give 100% commitment to the organisation (Mavin, 2001). Kelly and Marin (1998) found that most organisations will look less favorably to hire married...

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