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Abstract

The purpose of this exploratory study was to explore the challenges faced by working mothers in the education sector and the perceived policies and strategies to retain them in their current jobs. This basic qualitative study used in-depth semi-structured interviews to collect information from five working mothers with at least one child. Thematic analysis was done to analyse the data manually. The key challenges highlighted include work-life conflict, stereotyping, exhaustion, changing work schedule and career growth opportunities. The working mothers also stated that the key perceived policies and strategies to retain them include child-care support, working from home and flexible work arrangements. Generally, they stated that motherhood was their key priority, and they prioritised family overwork. The study provided an understanding to organisations on the challenges faced by working mothers and what policies organisations should focus on to retain them. This study was the first of its kind, and it provided in-depth experience and views of working mothers in the education sector. This paper makes contributions to work-life integration and career theory.
International Journal of Human Resource Studies
ISSN 2162-3058
2021, Vol. 11, No. 2
http://ijhrs.macrothink.org
17
Exploring the Challenges Faced by Working Mothers
and the Perceived Factors to Retain them in the Private
Education Sector
Hasani De Ravindranath
Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation, 57000 Kuala Lumpur
Jugindar Singh Kartar Singh
Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation, 57000 Kuala Lumpur
Thilageswary Arumugam
Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation, 57000 Kuala Lumpur
Janitha Kularajasingam
Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation, 57000 Kuala Lumpur
Received: Feb. 7, 2021 Accepted: Feb. 28, 2021 Online published: Feb. 25, 2021
doi:10.5296/ijhrs.v11i2.18457 URL: https://doi.org/10.5296/ijhrs.v11i2.18457
Abstract
The purpose of this exploratory study was to explore the challenges faced by working
mothers in the education sector and the perceived policies and strategies to retain them in
their current jobs. This basic qualitative study used in-depth semi-structured interviews to
collect information from five working mothers with at least one child. Thematic analysis
was done to analyse the data manually. The key challenges highlighted include work-life
conflict, stereotyping, exhaustion, changing work schedule and career growth opportunities.
The working mothers also stated that the key perceived policies and strategies to retain them
include child-care support, working from home and flexible work arrangements. Generally,
they stated that motherhood was their key priority, and they prioritised family overwork. The
study provided an understanding to organisations on the challenges faced by working mothers
International Journal of Human Resource Studies
ISSN 2162-3058
2021, Vol. 11, No. 2
http://ijhrs.macrothink.org
18
and what policies organisations should focus on to retain them. This study was the first of its
kind, and it provided in-depth experience and views of working mothers in the education
sector. This paper makes contributions to work-life integration and career theory.
Keywords: working mother, gender divide, work-life, retention
Introduction
Women participation in the workforce has increased, and this has been accompanied by more
significant challenges they face in balancing and managing their role between work and
family responsibilities (Marcinkus and Hamilton, 2006). Women make up 39.1% of the
female labour force participation in Malaysia, out of which 62% are estimated to be mothers.
Women constitute a significant percentage of the labour force, with approximately 6 million
female participants, with a rise of 49,000 females joining the labour force in the second
quarter of 2019. This translates to the female participation rate increasing higher than male
participation, which only increased by 23,000 male participants in the second quarter of 2019.
Comparatively, the female labour force participation rate rose from 55.1% in 2018 to 55.7%
in 2019. In addition, 73% of women participating in the Malaysian labour force are in the
prime fertility age bracket of 25-35 years of age (Malaysian Department of Statistics, 2019).
However, women face several challenges and based on a survey, around 75% of Malaysian
mothers quit their jobs due to a lack of flexibility (HrAsia, 2018). Another 94% of women
surveyed said they would be looking for a new job in the next 12 months. A recent report by
McKinsey (2020) reported that more than one in four women are contemplating either
resigning from their workplace or downsizing their careers. This points towards the severe
problems related to the retention of women in the workforce.
According to gender ratio reports by Ritchie and Roser (2019), women comprise 49% of the
global population. This statistic is very significant because as the female labour force
participation rate is increasing, women are viewed as a valuable asset to the labour force in
regard to gender diversity, competency, and productivity to organisations (Turban, Wu, and
Zhang, 2019). Unfortunately, it was reported that the retention of women in the Malaysian
workforce is challenging for Malaysian employers due to the lack of gender diversity
initiatives and inclusion programmes to attract and retain women who are planning
motherhood and who are currently mothers (TalentCorp, 2013). The Malaysian workplace is
believed by many to be patriarchal and male-dominated due to the lack of practising theories
of equal opportunities. Survey results by Talent Corp (2013) also state that women are
predominantly marginalised due to the belief of them prioritising family over their work.
Malaysia's male-dominated work environment is reportedly a contributor to women leaving
their careers as they lack social acceptance when occupying leadership roles due to the
adverse effects it can have on their familial responsibilities (TalentCorp,2013).
Past studies have identified several reasons why women quit their jobs. The survey by
HRAsia (2018) found that the key reason why women quit their jobs encompasses lack of
flexibility (75%), concerns about child-care (60%) and unsupportive bosses and work
environment (55%). Another challenge is gender biasness. A survey by Williams, Phillips
and Hall (2016) found that 64% of gender bias was triggered by motherhood. In the study by
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Williams, Phillips and Hall (2016), around 55.3% of women reported situations in which
gender bias was the cause of conflicts among women. Adhikari (2012) further stated that
women's problems include stress, exhaustion, and anxiety. This may be due to their challenge
to balance their role at the workplace and concern for the family and children. Past studies
also showed that ill-health among women would adversely affect employment opportunities
(Austen and Ong, 2010). As Yapp (2018) stated, the bulk of household work is women's
responsibility despite most of them now going to work in organisations. Yapp (2018)
highlighted that women spent three times longer on household chores than men. The stress
that working mothers encounter in achieving work-life balance can lead to lower performance
(Sudha and Karthikeyan, 2014).
There are also some policies and practices that women perceive will deter them from quitting
their jobs. McKinsey (2020) reported that ―broken rung‖ continues to be a significant barrier
faced by women. The survey by HRAsia (2018) found some of the policies and practices to
overcome the hurdles they are encountering encompass flexible work arrangements (46%)
and a transition period when returning to work (20%). Austen and Ong (2013) pointed out
that there is a relationship between reduced working hours and intention to leave. Another
study by Nie, Lämsä, and Pučėtaitė (2018) pointed out that organisational policies which
support work-family integration can lead to lower turnover intentions by female employees.
Jabeen, Friesen, and Ghoudi (2018) examined the quality of work life. The study found a
positive impact on the quality of work-life on the turnover intention of women. The study
among respondents in the education sector by Hundera (2014) revealed that the levels of role
stress and intention to leave is higher among female academic staff.
The education sector in Malaysia has more women employees than males. There was a total
of 423, 466 teachers enrolled in 2018, and 298, 237 of them were females (Ministry of
Education, 2018). Despite the education industry being one of the top females dominating
industries globally, most leadership positions are still held by men. Evidence indicates that
working mothers are facing challenges and planning to leave the workforce. In terms of
career progression, there is a lack of women in senior positions. This means that women are
under-represented across (Morley, Berma, and Hamid, 2017). The evidence from past
literature shows that retention of women is a critical issue. There is an overwhelming need for
employers to start looking at the challenges women face and the perceived factors that can
influence their retention. However, there is a dearth of research and literature relating to the
challenges and policies to retain working mothers in the education sector in Kuala Lumpur. In
addition, past studies were mostly causal studies that looked at the cause-and-effect
relationships. There is a paucity of research that has explored working mothers experience of
challenges, and the factors they perceive will motivate them to stay using qualitative methods.
Recognising the importance of working mothers, this study, then, offers an exploratory
perspective of the challenges faced by working mothers and the perceived factors that can
influence their retention. This study will provide in-depth knowledge of the challenges and
the perceived factors that will spur working mothers to stay in the workforce. This
information and insights provide a better understanding of this phenomenon, and business
organisations can implement policies and practices to support working mothers' retention.
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This study was focused on answering the following research questions.
Research Question 1: What are the challenges faced by working mothers in the private
education industry of Kuala Lumpur?
Research Question 2: What are the perceived organisational policies and practices that can
influence working mothers to continue their employment?
Literature Review
Challenges and problems faced by working mothers.
Working mothers face several challenges regarding juggling their roles related to the
household and as an employee. It was reported by McKinsey (2020) that women
continuously face discrimination in the workplace, and for every 100 men promoted to
manager, only 85 women were promoted. One of the main challenge or problem highlighted
was discrimination against women in the workplace. The issue of discrimination against
women in the workplace is highlighted in several studies, and it continues to be an
impediment to gender equality in the workplace (Sultana and Zulkefli, 2012; Gorman, 2005).
Scholars and researchers generally have related discrimination against women in the
workplace to cultural beliefs, socioeconomic norms and values (Ridgeway and England 2007;
Sultana and Zulkefli, 2012). According to a survey by Bright Horizons (2018), several
working mothers stated that doing more or putting in the effort at work may not always lead
to growth in their careers. They admitted that there are obstacles along the path in their career
growth. The survey revealed that 82% of working mothers encountered barriers that
prevented them from becoming leaders. In a survey carried out by the Women's Aid
Organisation (2016) that polled a total of 222 women in Malaysia, around 40% of women
stated that they had experienced job discrimination due to their pregnancy. The WAO survey
revealed that the five ways in which pregnant women were discriminated against encompass
low promotion opportunities, making their jobs redundant, demotion, placing them on
prolonged probation, and in extreme cases terminating their jobs.
Past researchers and scholars have also indicated that gender stereotyping may contribute to
discrimination against women in the workplace (Bobbitt-Zeher, 2011). Bobbitt-Zeher (2011)
explained that women are stereotyped as less invested workers, viewed as sexual objects, and
there are notions of women's traits as incompatible with specific jobs. Stereotyping can be
segregated as descriptive and prescriptive stereotyping. Burgess and Borgida’s (1999) stated
that descriptive stereotyping normally occurs in traditionally male-dominated settings.
However, in female-dominated settings, both descriptive and prescriptive stereotyping occurs.
Gender stereotyping will compromise working mothers' capabilities in terms of competency,
flexibility, and commitment to the workplace. Social psychological theories propose that
prevalent stereotypes against working mothers make them ultimately question their
performance capacity and dedication to their careers (Greer and Morgan, 2016).
In a study by Kremer (2016), women reported more significant work-family conflict and
family-work conflict than men. This leads to stress, burnout, anxiety, ill-health, and other
challenges faced by working mothers. Despite going to work, a large portion of the family
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role and the related household work is still the responsibility of women (Yapp, 2018). Women
spent three times longer time doing household chores compared to men (Yapp, 2018). Many
working mothers believe they can fulfil all their responsibilities, but at the expense of
exhaustion (Rendon, 2016). This conflict between work and family arises because women
role is time-consuming and stressful (Schueller-Weidekamm, and Kautzky-Willer, 2012).
Studies have shown that women encounter higher work-family conflict levels and greater
stress and burnout compared to men (Hill et al., 2008). The stress arising out of handling
work and family commitments can lead to negative consequences. The stress that working
mothers encounter in their role to achieve work-life balance can lead to burnout and lower
performance (Sudha & Karthikeyan, 2014; Schueller-Weidekamm and Kautzky-Willer, 2012).
Schueller-Weidekamm and Kautzky-Willer (2012) explained that the conflict between work
and family leads to stress and burnout. This further affects the working mother's family and
work roles. The conflict theory can explain the conflict. According to this theory, success or
satisfaction in one environment relates to loss or sacrifice in the other environment. The two
environments have different norms and requirements (Evans and Bartolome, 1984). The
conflict between work-related demands and family roles demands work-life balance and
flexibility by working mothers (Tajlili, 2014).
Many working mothers believe they can fulfil all their responsibilities, but at the expense of
stress and exhaustion (Rendon, 2016). The exhaustion can be the result of job spillover. A
study by Grice et al. (2011) revealed that working mothers with high levels of job spill over
to home had mental health-related problems. It was reported in The Guardian newspaper that
eighteen per cent of working mothers are more stressed than other people (Ramasamy, 2019).
In addition, mothers working full-time and have two or more children are 40% more stressed
than others. In another study, Sundaresan (2014) also reported that 67% of working mothers
who participated in the research stated that they suffer from excessive work burden. They
experienced challenges with their children's tasks, careers, and social circle. In addition, the
imbalance of work and family life also leaves working mothers exhausted and with little time
to take care of themselves. In the study, the majority of the respondents agreed that they
experience high levels of stress and anxiety, which even prevented some of them from
aspiring to progress in their careers as exhaustion from poor work-life balance inhibits
working mothers from realising their full potential (Sundaresan, 2014). Furthermore,
organisations' adverse effects arising from exhausted working mothers include absenteeism,
tardiness, demoralisation, lower job satisfaction, and low productivity.
Another challenge or problem faced is the career growth opportunities for women compared
to men. Evidence from past studies suggests that working mothers' face several barriers in
their career advancement (Kuruppuarachchi, and Surangi, 2020; Islam and Jantan, 2017).
Kuruppuarachchi and Surangi (2020) stated that the "glass ceiling" effect is one of the
barriers experienced by women in their career advancement. There are other individual
barriers, such as low self-confidence and low-risk taking (Worrall et al., 2010;
Kuruppuarachchi and Surangi, 2020). There are also organisational practices that are related
to organisational culture and structure (Tlaiss and Kauser, 2010). Most organisations are
nowadays male-oriented, and not much support and care are focused on women needs and
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requirements (Ismail and Ibrahim, 2008). Studies have also shown a gap in the relationship
between motherhood and women's career advancement (Brown (2010). This can be attributed
to several factors. One factor is the societal judgement placed on working mothers'
commitment levels (Brown, 2010). It is generally believed in several cultures that men can
commit more time to work than women, and women agree to this belief as they have more
household demands to fulfil. Based on the social role theory, King (2008) argued that it is
theorised that stereotypes concerning working mothers will drive biased perceptions about
their attitudes toward family and job commitments. This will account for the existence of the
'maternal wall'. Thus, organisations are believed to practice maternal bias by demonstrating
gender differences in perceptions of work-family attitudes that influence career advancement
(King, 2008). However, in contrast, it was argued by Sandberg (2013) that the reason why
women are underrepresented in positions of power and given lower career development
opportunities is voluntary and purely backed up by personal preference of women and
comfort in their existing career positions.
Past studies have revealed that women in the academic sector spent more time participating in
the deliverance of education than on research compared to their male faculty members. This
resulted in women and men in academia being treated differently in the work environment.
Women perceived that their work quality is scrutinised and valued less due to the constraints
placed on women because of familial responsibilities (Bingham and Nix, 2010). Past studies
also showed that academicians are among professions that have the highest levels of job
stress (Stoeber and Rennert, 2008). Therefore, it can be concluded that women in the
academic field are more likely to experience higher exhaustion levels and stress, which is
frequently conceptualised as a central dimension of burnout (Stoeber and Rennert, 2008).
Policies and practices to retain working mothers.
Scholars and researchers have stressed flexibility and flexible work arrangements as one of
the solutions to retain working mothers. In research carried out by Rakin (2018), 46% of the
participants agreed that flexible work arrangements would make them consider continuing in
the workforce. A survey done by Talent Corp (2013) stated that flexible work arrangements
were key to retaining women at the workplace as it allows them to integrate their motherhood
and professional responsibilities better. Flexible working opportunities can also motivate
working mothers to take up more career advancement opportunities if they are provided with
the necessary support to manage their time effectively. Furthermore, flexibility related
policies are also seen as easing the transition of re-entering the workplace after maternity
leave. Flexibility is a significant aspect in enabling women to balance their work and family
lives as flexibility, along with autonomy, can benefit individuals and increase their
competency levels (Kelly and Marin, 1998). Furthermore, since working mothers have
domestic responsibilities to uphold, flexibility is crucial for them to maintain adequate
work/family balance levels. Previous studies have found work/family conflict associated with
poor parental preferences, which leads to lifestyle preferences that contribute to inadequate
work/family balance. As a result, social policymakers are challenged when addressing the
complexity of work/family balance while giving equal consideration to economic
productivity (Losconcz and Bortolotto, 2009).
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Another solution to the retention of women is the provision of child-care support. According
to Talent Corp (2013), reliable and accessible child-care is of significant importance for
working mothers in the pursuit of continuing their professional lives. Studies have shown that
working mothers experience childcare-related challenges (Moilanen et al., 2016). Hein and
Cassirer (2010) also stated that working mothers' problems are finding appropriate child-care
for their children while they work. Therefore, employers' child-care support can help mitigate
the likelihood of mothers having to stay home to care for their children. The affordability of
high-quality child-care is an ongoing issue amongst working mothers in Malaysia. Therefore,
organisations enforcing policies in-support of child-care may possibly improve the retention
rates of females in the workforce. Child-care assistance may be critical for families struggling
with finances, resulting in working mothers relying on informal child-care arrangements,
which can be a source of added stress (Boushey and Wright, 2004). However, in Malaysia,
only 7% of the nation's employers have child-care support policies and which can explain
why 35% of working mothers leaving the workforce is due to child-care being too expensive
(TalentCorp, 2013). Employers should also have breastfeeding support policies and practices
that fit their company's budget and resources (Dinour, and Szaro, 2017).
Support for diversity and inclusion in the workplace policies is another potential predictor of
retention of working mothers. Encouraging gender diversity in the workplace is crucial for
the retention of women. As stated in the report by McKinsey (2020), companies can close
gender gaps by fostering diversity and providing equal opportunities. Past studies have
revealed a relationship between employees' diversity and turnover (Leonard and Levine,
2006). Leonard and Levine (2006) studied the effect of gender diversity on turnover rates
among sales employees and found evidence linking workplace gender diversity and higher
quit rates among women employees. Similarly, another study by Giuliano et al. (2006) found
evidence between gender differences and quit rates. Gender diversity improves a company's
potential and the economic standings of those companies when diversity inclusion policies
are adopted (Raley, 2019).
Several studies have shown gender equality in the workplace strengthens the capabilities, and
when policies are mandated, it also helps the country's economic status. Gender equality in
the workplace is expected to strengthen the practice of the fair and impartial distribution of
opportunities and resources for both men and women. However, in the current workplace,
role limits have resulted in divisive identities between men and women (Sharma and Sharma,
2012). A study by Elwér, et al. (2013) revealed that patterns of gender equality at the
workplace were related to psychological distress among women only. This means that gender
inequality in the workplace led to situations where women were disadvantaged. Elwér et al.
(2013) revealed that gender equality at the workplace was related to women's mental health.
A study by Wu and Cheng (2016) further highlighted that gender equality policy also
promotes an organisation's growth. However, in many countries, the "glass ceiling" concept
inhibits women from being given equal workplace opportunities. This rallies back to the
gender stereotypes, which can act as an obstacle that can be quite complex to diminish if the
top management does not exhibit the relevant efforts. Emphasis must be placed on the talent
pool acquired by human resource departments in Malaysia in order to influence corporate
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behaviour (TalentCorp, 2013). It was also found that organisations lose up to 50% of their
consumer markets by side-lining women. Therefore, looking out for women's needs in the
workplace is essential for organisations to thrive to their highest potential (TalentCorp, 2013).
Methodology
This was an exploratory study to determine the challenges faced by working mothers in the
academia sector and to gather insight into their perceived strategies to help retain working
mothers in the workforce. The study upheld the interpretivism philosophy. This philosophy
asserts that an intervention's subjective interpretation is essential for a particular reality to be
understood. Therefore, the adoption of the phenomenology strategy is paramount to the
interpretivism philosophy. It helps to identify the essence of lived human experiences about a
phenomenon as expressed by participants (Saunders et al., 2016). An inductive approach was
used in this study as it was necessary to gauge the participants' feelings to understand better
the nature of the problem (Saunders et al., 2016). With the guidance of the phenomenological
research paradigm, the use of a qualitative research method to collect primary data through
interviews and open-ended questionnaires allowed the researcher to gain a deeper
understanding by taking into account the different voices and perspectives of the study
population. The time horizon used was cross-sectional as it paves the way for further study.
The target population of this study were working mothers in Private Universities in Kuala
Lumpur. Purposive sampling was more appropriate for this study because a clear inclusion
criterion was set, and only cases that met the criteria were selected for the interview
(Saunders et al., 2016). The sample size was in line with the requirement to continue data
collection until the saturation point is reached (Merriam and Tisdell, 2018). In this study,
where the participants are homogeneous, the recommended target sample size was 4-12
participants (Saunders et al. 2016). For this study, there were five respondents from a
homogeneous background.
This study used an inductive approach, and semi-structured interviews were more appropriate
to collect non-numerical data (Merriam and Tisdell, 2016). The semi-structured interview
strategy allowed deeper probing and collection of in-depth data that provided a deep
understanding of the phenomena. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, most of the interviews were
done online through tools like Zoom and Google Meet. Permission was obtained to record the
interview from the participant. Open-ended questions were asked, followed by probing
questions. Ethical principles of privacy and confidentiality were fully complied with by the
researcher. Transcription of the recordings was done to facilitate the data analysis.
This study applied the "manual thematic coding analysis" strategy to generalise the findings.
Thematic analysis was chosen because it provides flexibility to analyse the data leading to
rich descriptions, explanations, and theorising. The purpose of thematic analysis was to
search for themes or patterns in the collected data (Saunders et al., 2016). In the thematic
analysis, coding was done. In this inductive approach, coding was guided by the purpose of
the research and the research questions (Saunders et al., 2016). The objective was to
categorise the codes and identify the themes or patterns. The procedure includes
comprehension and analysis of the data, coding, categorising, and identifying the patterns and
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themes and writing the report. After the coding was completed, the search for themes started.
At this point, the analysis was to search for patterns and relationships in the codes to create
themes that were related to the research questions (Saunders et al., 2016).
To check the data's trustworthiness, the four criteria stated by Lincoln and Guba (1985) were
referred. The four criteria specified for trustworthiness by Lincoln and Guba (1985) include
credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability. Credibility refers to the focus of
the research. It is confidence how clearly the data address the intended focus (Polit & Beck,
2012). In this study, credibility was addressed through member checking. In this study, much
focus was placed on member validation. The participants were given the transcript of the raw
data to confirm. They were requested to check, and comment and all comments and changes
were recorded (Saunders et al., 2016). The stability of data over time and under different
conditions is referred to as dependability. To address the dependability of data, all records and
changes were saved and maintained. An audit trail was strictly complied with by the
researcher (Koch, 1994). Markers that include reasons for analytical or methodological
choices were used to ensure that readers can understand why and how decisions were
provided to meet the criterion of confirmability (Koch, 1994).
Results and discussions
There were five participants in this study. All five participants were full time working
mothers. They were all Malaysian lecturers in Private Universities in Malaysia. All were
married with at least one child. The participants were, therefore, considered homogeneous. To
maintain the ethical principle of privacy and confidentiality, the names were kept confidential.
They were referred to as Respondent 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.
Research Question 1
The first research question aimed to get insights into the challenges faced by working
mothers based on their lived experiences. Based on the thematic analysis, the main themes
that emerged encompass work-life conflict, excessive work and exhaustion, interference
caused by changes in work schedules, stereotyping, and career growth.
Work-life conflict
Most of the participants stated that the work-life conflict was the main challenge that they
encountered. Most of the academic jobs require substantial time to be devoted to work that
involves lecturing and handling other student-related matters. This job requires a substantial
amount of time to be spent on work-related responsibilities, and working mothers find it very
difficult because of family commitments. They generally found it difficult to cope with the
pressures related to work responsibilities and the demands related to family responsibilities.
The following comments are indicative of the view and expressed by the participants:
Participant 2: My role as a mother and lecturer is very challenging because I have to take
care of my children and fulfil my work-related responsibilities. I have a 5-year-old child, and
I need to help with her studies and homework. I have a baby too, and I am still breastfeeding
him. I also need to do many household chores.
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Participant 4: ―Career development is important but allocating time to work and family
responsibilities is a challenge. To cope with family responsibilities and my children and, at
the same time, being efficient at work requires a lot of time and energy. I also feel that it is
not fair to neglect anyone of my responsibilities".
Participant 5: "Managing time between workload and family expectations is still an ongoing
challenge. There is also a lot of work that spill over into my home."
The participants generally expressed their difficulties in balancing their work-related and
family responsibilities. In addition to their work-related responsibilities, women also carry
the burden of handling family matters, caring for children and doing household tasks. This
leads to stress due to job spill into their home and family role. They need to make sacrifices
due to conflict in the work and home environment. Past studies have also highlighted similar
concerns (Schueller-Weidekamm, and Kautzky-Willer, 2012; Hill et al., 2008; Kremer, 2016).
Schueller-Weidekamm and Kautzky-Willer (2012) highlighted that the conflict between work
and family arises because women's role is time-consuming and stressful. Women encounter
higher work-family conflict levels and greater stress and burnout than men (Hill et al., 2008).
Women also experience higher challenges than males in balancing their work and family
commitments (Sundaresan, 2015).
Excessive work and exhaustion
An extension of work-life conflict was excessive work and exhaustion. All participants
described themselves as being exhausted, experience frequent tiredness, and had limited or no
time to take care of their individual well-being. They expressed that handling work-related
roles and family commitments result in a lot of anxiety and confusion on their priorities and
what needs to be sacrificed. Some women choose to sacrifice their career due to their focus
on family. All the participants, in one way or other, stated that they experienced high levels of
exhaustion which can also be mirrored as symptoms of stress. This study's findings revealed
that working mothers sacrifice their free time and have limited to no time to take focus and
care for their own well-being. Time management was also mentioned as an obstacle to
balancing their work and home environment effectively. The following comments are
indicative of the views expressed by the participants.
Participant 4: ―I often feel very tired and worn out at the end of the day. I hardly have time for
myself. I am unable to take care of myself."
Participant 4: "I feel much anxiety about fulfilling my role and I and do not even have time to
spend on my own self".
Participant 6: “A lot of time is spent on travelling. In addition, as an academician, I have to
manage several work-related tasks. I also must handle most of the household matters. At the
end of the day, I feel exhausted”.
Participant 2: “I bring home a lot of work as there are several administrative tasks such as
marking of papers that I need to handle within the deadlines. This gives me more stress”.
It can be seen from this study that the workload of academicians is high, and they also need
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to handle their family and children. This exerts a lot of strain, and they find it very difficult to
cope with the pressures of work and family commitments. This finding is consistent with past
studies that revealed that a large portion of the family role and the related household work is
still the responsibility of women (Yapp, 2018). Past studies have revealed that women spent
three times longer time doing household chores than men (Yapp, 2018). Many working
mothers believe they can fulfil all their responsibilities, but at the expense of exhaustion
(Rendon, 2016). Exhaustion can lead to ill health among women, which can adversely affect
the employment opportunities and advancement of women in their careers (Austen and Ong,
2010). In addition, as women take back a lot of their work, the constant high levels of job
spill over to home can lead to mental health-related problems.
Long work hours and changing work schedule.
The work schedules of academicians are not fixed. The respondents stated that almost every
week, there are changes to the academicians teaching schedules. This affects their ability to
plan their time and adds to the uncertainties and anxieties that they encounter. They also
perform other tasks during non-working hours, such as advising students and marking papers.
In addition to their routine tasks and family responsibilities, these tasks increase their stress
and affect their performance. This study demonstrated that a few participants felt guilty when
they could not attend to their children's needs the way they would ideally have preferred to.
The following comments are indicative of the view and expressed by the participants.
Participant 1: The normal work routine worked perfectly well, and no issues were faced as
long as sudden task additions and changes do not come up. The changes in the work schedule
affect my ability to plan my activities”.
Participant 2: The regular work schedule itself was leading to an imbalance in supporting
the role that I must give priority. I have a new-born baby, and as a working mother, it is quite
challenging because I must take care of my children and work. As an educator, my work does
not end at the University, and when I go back home, I still have a lot to do, like preparing for
the next day's classes, and besides that, I have other paperwork to be done as well. If your
children are a little older, it is much easier to handle compared to when they are much
younger. Additionally, work schedule imbalance can potentially result in exhaustion and
further reduce working mothers' capabilities".
Long working hours and uncertain working schedules can lead to negative outcomes. Long
working hours by women can be associated with depression, weight gain, smoking and
alcohol consumption. A study by Shields (1999) stated that women who worked long hours
had increased odds of subsequently experiencing depression, smoking, and drinking alcohol.
Long working hours also lead to a higher risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease than those
working standard hours (Kivimäki et al., 2015). Long working long hours exacerbates the
structural inequality of gender. In addition, women's career paths can be the dichotomised
patterns of either emulating workplace masculinity or leaving their jobs (Nemoto, 2013).
Stereotyping and growth in the workplace
Workplace stereotyping against working mothers has been regarded as a contributor to slow
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growth opportunities. Interestingly, this study found that there were some contradictory views
relating to stereotyping in the workplace. The following comments are indicative of the views
expressed by the participants:
Participant 1: "If ten years ago, if you asked me this, then I would say yes, there is a bias, but
nowadays there is no difference between male and female in terms of gaining knowledge,
exposure, independence. Everything has become equal".
Participant 3: “I don’t agree with stereotyping and biasness in the education industry when it
comes to women in leadership roles and other career advancement opportunities. Both men
and women are equal in the education industry. If you do well and perform well, then you do
get what you deserve”.
Participant 4: "In the education industry, the leadership roles are still dominated by men. This
is due to the dual roles’ women play both back at home and work, limiting their chances and
opportunities to attain higher positions.
Participant 5: “I think men are more focused on career, but women must manage their career
and family in a balanced manner. Hence females cannot give higher priority to their career,
unlike men. Employers prefer men because they can make decisions about work as they are
fully focused on work. People tend to think that working mothers care about family matters,
especially when it concerns children's well-being”.
The study generally pointed towards the assigned gender to various leadership traits, resulting
in the tendency to perpetuate stereotypes. Gender plays a significant role in career growth and
leadership positions within organisations. When working women become mothers, they must
challenge the perceptions and stereotypes. Working mothers are perceived as not be able to
devote attention to work because of family obligations. Therefore, it may be nearly
impossible for a working mother to advance in her career. However, there were differences in
views from the participants in this study, and this could be due to the normative acceptance
by some working women. There can be the presence of cultural support, but the study
revealed that strongly male-dominant cultures are prevalent. Professional success in some
fields requires stereotypically masculine behaviour. However, working women are being
penalised in work domains through different forms of gender harassment (Leskinen et al.,
2015). This can lead to discrimination against women throughout their careers, from hiring to
opportunities for career advancement.
Research question 2
The second research question aimed to understand perceived organisational policies or
strategies that can be adapted to retain working mothers. Findings of the perceived
organisational strategies to retain working mothers was a critical component of this study in
order to identify organisational practices which support the work/family balance amongst
working mothers according to their lived experiences as the female labour force participation
rate is growing rapidly and women may have biological desires to start family planning. All
the participants of this study discussed what support systems and organisational strategies
they rely on to fulfil their work and familial responsibilities. Some organisational practices
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they perceive would help out working mothers immensely. Overwhelmingly, all participants
acknowledged their reliance on grandparents and/or daycare as their support systems in order
to achieve an effective balance between work and family, which was also used as grounds to
base their perceived strategies.
Child-care support
This was a common theme amongst many participants. Child-care support in terms of having
on-site daycare was greatly preferred as it would be an ideal strategy to help working mothers
with their main challenge work/family conflict. Some of the views expressed by the
participants are as follows:
Participant 1: “I do not have anyone at home to depend on for help. It would be convenient to
bring my children to the on-site daycare in case of any emergencies in the morning. This
policy is lacking in the education industry. There is no policies and support for child-care or
other personal matters affecting employees”.
Participant 3: “For me, work is important, but children and family are also important. My
employers need to understand my role”.
To resolve the challenges currently faced by working mothers, this study found that working
mothers need support from the organisation. The absence of this highly preferred strategy in
the private education sector of Kuala Lumpur contributes to the fact of why 35% of working
mothers in Malaysia leave the workforce due to limited child-care support. Past studies have
also stated that working mothers' problems are finding appropriate child-care for their
children while they work (Moilanen et al., 2016; Hein and Cassirer (2010). Therefore,
adopting child-care support strategies can greatly act as a strong support system in assisting
working mothers to fulfil their dual role responsibilities. This will further enable them to
combat exhaustion, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and ultimately increase
retention. This study provided evidence that child-care support without relying on
grandparents would immensely work in favour of working mothers. Employers' child-care
support can help mitigate the likelihood of mothers having to stay home to care for their
children. Working mothers should be given the flexibility to take breaks during their working
hours to care for their children.
Flexible work arrangements
Another perceived solution was flexible work arrangements. In this study, it was found that
the majority of the participants preferred flexible work arrangements. Generally, the
participants stated that there are no organisational strategies or policies to support flexible
work arrangements. The views expressed are stated below:
Participant 3: ―To enable me to pursue further studies and at the same time handle other tasks,
flexibility would help me a lot. Completion of my studies will further benefit the organisation
in term of University ranking. My main challenges as a working mother are to balance my
studies, career, and family-related tasks.
Participant 5: Flexible work arrangements will allow me to manage my work-related and
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family-related matters. However, the organisation has no formal policy on flexible work
arrangement”.
In this study, it was clear that flexibility would assist in career advancement opportunities and
possibly achieve leadership roles in the education industry for this participant. Flexible
working hours could increase working mothers' intention to stay and their career
advancement opportunities. Flexible working hours could provide working mothers with the
autonomy to control their work schedule. This can be of value for developing better
work/family balance routines, which can lower the turnover rates of women in organisations.
Furthermore, since three out of six participants stated that organisations had established no
current strategies to support working mothers, it would be ideal for organisations, specifically
those in the education industry, to consider looking into ways this strategy can be
incorporated into working mothers' work schedules as this is a clear need which is currently
not formally implemented.
Work from home
The majority of the participants expressed that one of the best organisational practices, which
is perceived to be attractive to working mothers in the education industry, would be to offer
remote working arrangements. This would significantly reduce the challenges they face.
Some of the views expressed were as follows:
Participant 2: "I have a baby, and the policy to conduct my evening classes from home would
be ideal for me".
Participant 5: “For me, the working from home option would be very useful. However, this
may not be attractive to all working mothers”.
Participant 1: “I feel that working from home stirred up emotions of guilt because I could not
attend to my children although there were within arm’s reach. There are challenges related to
working from home, such as interruptions caused by children”.
Work from home was another perceived solution to retain working mothers. Past studies also
showed that women appreciated the opportunity to work from home more than men. This will
enable them to ensure a healthier life. To be successful, women working from home must
improve their communications skills, time management and ability to work independently
(Raišienė et al., 2020). Although the women stated that working from home was one of the
options, there were some disagreements related to the option to work from home. Parental
involvement is absolutely needed for giving their children a loving and secure childhood. In
addition, disturbances and interruptions are more likely to impact the dual role
responsibilities as attention will have to be given to both work and family simultaneously.
However, women with school-going children can effectively manage to work from home.
Moreover, routine-based work helps working mothers thrive, and therefore the working from
home option may be a solution to changing work schedules.
Implications
This study helped to understand the challenges faced by working mothers in the modern
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workplace as well as the perceived strategies that can retain them. This study revealed the key
challenges and the impact those challenges had on the well-being of working mothers. This
study also revealed the perceived strategies to help and retain working mothers in the
workforce. This study found that working mothers in academia in Kuala Lumpur are
overwhelmingly exhausted and face stress. This is a significant finding as it could potentially
hinder females from joining the education industry in the future or continue working.
Therefore, this study's findings can also contribute to the development of policies to support
working mothers. Since the education industry is female dominated, this study's findings are
crucial when creating employee policies for this specific industry as the private sector is
usually competitive. Therefore, employees can easily switch to different organisations. In
order to retain women and working mothers in the private sector of academia, policies for
working mothers in private educational institutions must be attractive as part of their
competitive corporate strategy, especially in today's competitive economy. This study's
findings also have implications for working mothers as it provides them with a deeper
understanding of the challenges and the perceived factors that can retain them in their current
jobs. Working women must find ways to achieve a harmonious balance in work and
family-related spheres of their lives. Furthermore, this study also contributes to the theory of
a myriad of topics relating to working mothers in Malaysia, which was one of the gaps that
prompted this particular study in this region. Government bodies and organisations can also
view this study's findings as useful when introducing work-life balance policies in the future.
Without governments' support, working mothers' effective work-life policies will not be
pursued quickly and seriously enough.
Limitations and future research
This qualitative study collected information relating to working mothers' subjective
experiences in the educational sector in Malaysia. Future studies should be expanded to other
sectors, such as the public sector. This was only a qualitative study, and future studies should
consider mixed-method studies such as an exploratory sequential study to obtain better
information and validate the findings. The explanatory sequential study should also consider
the collection of data from more than one source. The mixed method's quantitative phase can
provide more in-depth information to integrate and support the findings during the study's
quantitative phase. The diversity or differences due to age, position in the organisation, social
status and family size were not included in this study. For instance, studies involving single
mothers may provide a different viewpoint. Therefore, future studies should consider the
demographics to get a greater diversity of voice about challenges encountered and the
perceived solutions to retain working mothers.
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