More important than firms deciding if WFH should be permanent is the community’s effort to scrub out unconscious sexist biases and unseat long-held gender stereotypes.
2021 is the Year of Celebrating Singapore Women. It is also a year in which the world has continued to be battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, with employees forced to work from home and workers losing jobs. Dishearteningly, a disproportionately high number of people affected were women. A 2021 McKinsey report revealed that one in four women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers, compared to one in five men.
Additional household and home schooling responsibilities brought about by the pandemic fell more on female shoulders, driving 2.5 million of them from the US workforce as at March, almost 40 per cent more than men. It is a situation that US Vice President, Kamala Harris, has described as a “national emergency” and warned that, in just one year, “the pandemic has put decades of the progress we have collectively made for women workers at risk.”
In Singapore, the issue has been discussed at the highest levels. President Halimah Yacob lamented in a recent awards ceremony that the pandemic has undermined women’s progress, while Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says that female standing in society has improved but mindsets and cultural norms continue to be an obstacle. He has promised to look into enhancing workplace opportunities, caregiver support and protections afforded to women, with “concrete proposals” to be presented in Parliament early next year, in a speech delivered at the closing session of the Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development in September.
Another impact of Covid-19 has been the accelerated adoption of technology due to the world’s pivot to virtual meetings, cashless payments, online securities trading and e-commerce, forced on us by a global lockdown. Graduates in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Stem) are consequently more in demand. But men are the predominant entrants into these fields, and of the women who obtain Stem degrees and diplomas, only 58 per cent go on to work in related industries, compared with 70 per cent of men. With the growing importance of technology, graduates with these skills sets will continue to be the most sought after, which is likely to widen the imbalance of employment and promotion prospects between the sexes in the post-pandemic economy.
Where does this leave us on our march towards gender equality?
Gender equality in the workplace
Gender equality in Singapore has very much focused on the C-suite, with the percentage of female representation on boards being a key metric. The statistics are still abysmal: female directors of the 100 biggest listed companies in Singapore made up just 17.6 per cent as of end-2020. There is no shortage of initiatives to help: mentorship programmes, flexible working arrangements, and endless fireside chats by role models. These are important initiatives but the glacial pace at which women are progressing suggests that these measures are falling short.
Part of the problem is that, in targeting women in middle management, we are addressing the issue too late. Singapore provides equal opportunities in education and careers, with females making up half of university entrants. However they occupy only 30 per cent of senior management roles, and of those, slightly more than half make it to the boardroom.
It’s about changing mindsets
Clearly a re-think of the strategy is needed.
“At workplaces, women still encounter pre-conceived notions, role and gender stereotypes. If they are too gentle, they get bulldozed over by male colleagues. Too firm, and they are resented for being too bossy”.
These words, from PM Lee’s speech, point to the root cause of problem. For so long as society – both men and women – continue to have gender-based preconceptions, women will struggle for an equal footing.
I was labelled “bossy” throughout my school years and warned by my parents not to be too assertive because no man would marry me although “he might date you”. This set two unspoken rules for me as a female: first, act feminine; second, find a husband. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to prize ambition and achievement, whether on the sports field or in the classroom. I have never heard a boy described as “bossy”; instead, they are “natural leaders”.
Recent conversations on the male-female divide have ascribed the problem to “toxic masculinity”, referring to manifestations of malignant misogynism. At its worst, this leads to sexist acts against women like bullying and harassment. But putting politicised and pejorative labels on such differences deepens the divide between men and women, creating a siege mentality rather than an environment conducive to engagement.
If we are to change deeply embedded cultural and societal attitudes towards the roles of men and women, this will require the buy-in of all stakeholders – both individuals and the community.
Much has been said about the Asian woman’s role in the family, and how women need to adapt to make it in a “man’s world”. This is important, as are the continuing efforts of the government and business leaders to put in place structures to help women, but if the problem is coming from embedded – and possibly subconscious – attitudes, then change at a more fundamental level is called for.
When parents tell daughters that they are “daddy’s little princess” or teach tearful sons to “man up”, they are entrenching stereotypes in the child’s psyche. Men reinforce the same stereotypes when they indulge in “locker room” banter or, more insidiously, use gender-based language like labelling someone a “woman driver” or telling timid teammates to “grow a pair”.
We need to examine the words we use and eliminate those with underlying sexism from our vocabulary. This is not just for the “woke” or the politically correct. The words we use, even if inoffensive to the people addressed, will reinforce the wrong attitudes in our own psyches and in bystanders who overhear the conversation.
And then there are the societal defaults applied to the roles of men and women.
“Mom as default” is one. It is almost invariably the mother’s mobile number that is added to the parents’ school chat group and it is, more often than not, the mother who takes unpaid leave during examination periods to tutor the child. If one parent has to give up their job to look after a family member, it will likely be the woman. In Asian homes, it is also the woman who has the principal responsibility for household chores.
“Man as main breadwinner” is another. Among more successful couples, there is a perception that the woman can, and will, quit her job to be “looked after” by her high-achiever husband. Even I, a lawyer who has been in practice long enough to have become a fixture in the legal fraternity, have been asked countless times if I still work, by people assuming that my title of Joint Managing Partner is an honorific. “You don’t have to work!” is the usual compliment – to my husband – that accompanies the question.
It is a personal decision for every couple how to organise their home life. The wife may enjoy cooking and cherish every chance to be with the children at pivotal points in their lives. She may wish to stop working and to devote time to family. These are legitimate decisions but should be made by the couple on an equal footing. Gender-based roles should not be defaulted to, whether as a matter of duty or entitlement. Otherwise, we entrench the idea that such roles are cast in stone.
New practices at work
Even as women continue to adopt new behaviours in male-dominated work places, corporate leaders must help them bridge the gap, not for the sake of improved gender diversity statistics, but to level the playing field.
Men and women respond to work challenges differently. A woman, who may be as accomplished as her male counterpart, would hesitate to take on expanded responsibilities without 100 per cent confidence, and will be more reticent to trumpet her achievements in performance reviews. This will affect promotion prospects and pay. A good boss would engage female colleagues differently to get the best out of them.
Increasingly, enlightened companies are using gender-blind recruitment processes to evaluate new hires. A useful self-check of our gender bias is to consider whether a subordinate or potential employee would be assessed differently if their gender was undisclosed.
It’s not just career progression at stake
Underlying sexism which leads to female denigration also affects more than careers and economic performance.
Sex crimes are on the rise, especially in the online world. Women and young girls are being targeted – revenge porn, sexually explicit photographs doctored to look like the victim and doxxing are just some examples. Females are the predominant targets of such harassment. If we continue to perpetuate male-dominant stereotypes, we create the petri dish where toxic attitudes thrive.
Covid-19 has forced Singapore to reimagine life after the pandemic. Flexible work arrangements will benefit women juggling home duties. But if those are piled unequally on females, women will leave the workforce or let their career progression take a back seat. This forms a vicious circle, creating a negative model for our kids – both boys and girls – to learn from. More important than companies deciding if working from home should be permanent is the community’s effort to scrub out unconscious sexist biases and unseat long-held gender stereotypes. Only then can Singapore come through the pandemic stronger, both as an economy and as a society.
A version of this article was first published in The Business Times on 12 November 2021.