Women in the Labour Force


In 2017 48.8% of Malaysia’s total population is represented by women1; in Penang, women make up 49.7% of its total population.2

However, women stood for only 38.6% of Malaysia’s total labour force, and in comparison, 41.6% of Penang’s total labour force3. According to the Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum in 2016, Malaysia was ranked 88 out of 144 countries for gender equality in economic participation and opportunity. Regionally, Malaysia was only ranked higher than Indonesia. (Myanmar and East Timor were not included in the report.)

There are more female university enrolments and graduates in Malaysia compared to males; however, this does not translate into the workforce: only slightly more than half of Malaysia’s workingage female population are employed. The female labour force participation rate for Malaysia was 54.3% in 2016, and historically, the national rate has never risen beyond 55%.

Figure 1 shows the labour force participation rate of both men and women in Malaysia and Penang from 2012 to 2017. In terms of female labour force participation, Penang has consistently performed better than the national average, remaining above 55% for the last five years. In comparison, the national average fluctuates below 55%. The male labour force participation rate remains on par with the national average.

Malaysia’s overall unemployment rate for 2016 stood at 3.4%. However, as shown in Figure 2, the national female unemployment rate has been increasing over the last three years. In contrast, Penang saw a declining trend in female unemployment rate from 2012 to 2015, but then saw an increase in 2016.

Nevertheless, as Figure 2 shows, Penang’s female unemployment rate consistently sits below the national average. It was no different in 2016, when Penang’s female unemployment rate of 2.2% was well below the national average of 3.9%. Penang’s male unemployment rate is also lower compared to the national average, but is seeing an upward trend over the last three years.

Figure 3 indicates the education level of women in the workforce for Malaysia and Penang. In the last three years, Penang’s female workforce saw a decline in the proportion of primary and secondary school certificate holders, whereas female workers with no formal education fluctuated between 0.9% and 1.2% from 2014 to 2016.

In contrast, the number of female tertiary-level certificate holders in the workforce has been steadily increasing, achieving a high of Source: Author’s own calculations, data from Department of Statistics Malaysia, Labour Force Survey, 2012-2016. 37.6% in 2016. It is noted that the proportion of tertiary-educated females in Penang is higher than the national proportion. It is also interesting to see that the proportion of tertiary-educated females in Malaysia and Penang’s workforce has always been decidedly higher than their male counterparts, whose percentage sat at 22.8% and 28.3% respectively in 20164.

Figure 4 illustrates the proportion of Malaysia and Penang’s female workforce by occupation and skill level. The highest percentage of Penang’s female workforce is medium-skilled workers, working in clerical support, and services and sales, recording 40.4% in 2016.

The proportion of medium-skilled female workers in Penang has seen a slight decline over the last five years, perhaps as a result of the increase in high-skilled female workers in the state since 2012; an all-time high of 32% of high-skilled female workers was achieved in 2016. The proportion of high-skilled employed females in Penang has always been distinctly higher compared to the national proportion. Low-skilled female workers comprise less than one-third of Penang's female workforce in 2016, following the trend of previous years.

Figure 5 depicts the percentage of female workforce in Malaysia and Penang by their status in employment. Unsurprisingly, a large proportion of the female workforce are salary-drawing employees. In fact, salaried female workers in Penang have been seeing an increasing trend from 2014, recording a five-year high of 84.0% in 2016.

The proportion of female employers in both Malaysia and Penang are minute; less than 2% of the workforce are employers. Men, however, have a healthier percentage; between 5% - 6% of the male workforce assume the position of an employer5. Self-employed female workers and unpaid female family workers in Penang saw a decreasing trend in the last three years. In contrast, self-employed female workers in Malaysia saw an increasing trend but noted a decreasing trend for unpaid female family workers.

Undeniably, the contribution of women to the development and advancement of the economy is vital. The lower labour force participation rate of women, as compared to their male counterparts, signifies that the economy is benefitting less from the expertise and knowledge of capable women. There should be more measures to encourage women’s participation in the workforce, among them childcare and family-friendly policies as well as retraining programmes for women to participate in and return to the workforce.

1 Department of Statistics Malaysia, Current Population Estimates, Malaysia, 2016-2017.
2 Department of Statistics Malaysia, Population Estimates, Penang, 2016-2017.
3 Department of Statistics Malaysia, Labour Force Survey, 2016.
4 Department of Statistics Malaysia, Labour Force Survey, 2012 - 2016
5 Department of Statistics Malaysia, Labour Force Survey, 2012-2016.

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