Women are equal to men in intellectual capacity. The only differences are the physical and biological ones. To what extent has the status of women in the Singapore workplace change, and what remains to be done?
In September 1975, then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew delivered a speech at the International Women’s Year Seminar and Exhibition organised by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). That year marked the 10th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. “The only differences between men and women are the physical and biological ones. Women are equal to men in intellectual capacity,” said Mr Lee. “Societies which do not educate and use half their potential because they are women, are those which will be the worse off.”
It’s been four decades since that speech. To what extent has the status of women in the Singapore workplace changed, and what remains to be done?
There is a rising rate of workforce participation for females in Singapore.
At a global level, Singapore is generally regarded as a leading nation when it comes to gender equality. Our female workforce participation rate of 60.4% is significantly higher than the global rate of women of working age in the labour force (50%).
According to the “Global Gender Gap Report 2016” published by the World Economic Forum, Singapore is ranked 55 out of 144 countries, and is stated to be “the country that has made the most progress in the region on the Economic Participation and Opportunity subindex over the past decade”.
But certain cultural norms and limitations are slow to change.
The evidence points to persistent gender inequality in the performance of domestic responsibilities. The rate of workforce participation is highest for females between the ages of 25 to 29 (90.6%), which is on par with males. However, the rate steadily drops in the subsequent age groups. There is a high dropout rate among women in their 30s and 40s, causing a dearth of females at management and leadership levels as most of the women had to take care of family responsibilities.
There are also signs that women are less well-equipped than men for the digital age. Although women are generally well-represented in tertiary institutions, they remain underrepresented in the study of engineering sciences and information technology. “The gender imbalance in tech could mean women risk missing out on career opportunities in an economy in which tech is increasingly important,” writes Linette Lim in an article published by Channel NewsAsia.
What more needs to be done?
Given Singapore’s multi-racial history, anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action have largely centred on racial, religious and cultural integration. The government has mostly shied away from policies that specifically support or enable women’s success in the workplace. However, as recognised by UN Women and its Women’s Empowerment Principles, “ensuring the inclusion of women’s talents, skills, experience and energies requires intentional actions and deliberate policies”. If we take stock of the slow progress to date, the need for urgent and concrete action becomes clear.
Company leaders need to accept the evidence in support of gender diversity and start devoting more resources to its pursuit, for profit as well as the betterment of society. These “resources” should include fair compensation and benefits that help level the playing field for women.
These can include rewarding quality of output rather than number of hours worked, providing for flexible working arrangements, putting in place mentorship programs, and encouraging women to showcase leadership by giving them high-visibility initiatives.
In other words, companies need to take deliberate steps to promote a culture where men feel free to prioritise their families and women feel free to prioritise their careers, in each case without penalty or derision.
If government bodies, corporates and individuals work together to identify and meet the challenges for women at work, Singapore has the potential to be a model of gender diversity for other countries in the region and beyond.
The full article is available on LinkedIn. It was first published on 8 January 2017.
Images by Lean In Singapore, Lynette Ooi
Lynette is a commercial lawyer with nine years of expertise in technology, telecommunications and media industries. She is qualified to practise as a solicitor in Singapore and Hong Kong. Her work experience spans across Europe and the Asia Pacific region.