From Bedroom to Boardroom – The Economics of The Gentler Sex

By Stefanie Yuen Thio

Sheryl Sandberg says women need to Lean In. As a working mother, my biggest challenge is to not Keel Over. I say that it’s about time our policies got men to Step Up and, if it is serious about fixing the problem, for the government to Stump Up.

In March this year, the government announced that it is extending mandatory paternity leave to two weeks in the hopes that this will reverse Singapore’s birth rate decline.

When TSMP instituted paid paternity leave in April 2012 (before it became mandatory), we made it a condition that the leave be taken in the first year of the baby’s life, believing that a hands-on father in infant care is more likely to be actively engaged as the child grows up. This was our way, not only of supporting young families, but of promoting gender diversity in Singapore.

To date, however, Singapore’s family friendly policies and women’s empowerment initiatives have not turned the tide on the twin problems of a low birth rate and imbalanced representation in the C-Suite.

Here, Stefanie Yuen Thio wonders if the present support policies in fact entrench the economic subjugation of women, and asks if more drastic financial measures are required.

In other words: How much are we prepared to pay women to be mothers?

The Dismal Statistics

Singapore continues to grapple with a low total fertility rate of 1.25. The lamentations are sustained and vociferous – a low birth rate will result in drastic financial straits. We won’t have enough economically viable young people to support our greying population. To address this, the government has, in the last two decades, increased paid maternity leave, introduced childcare leave for both parents, established cash bonuses for couples having babies and instituted paternity leave (which will now be extended to a fortnight).

Another abysmal statistic is the percentage of female representation in upper management. Singapore’s listed companies only had 9.5% of women in 2015. This is despite the fact that we are empirically one of the most gender equal places in the world to work. Although they form half the workforce at entry level, women fall off the corporate ladder at an alarming rate. Numerous studies have shown that the gender imbalance is bad for the bottom line. The government launched a Diversity Task Force in 2012 to tackle the issue.

What happens in the bedroom spills over into the boardroom

One problem starts in the bedroom; the other takes place in the boardroom. But both revolve around the role of women.

Women bear the biological brunt of childbearing, but they also, for a variety of personal, cultural and societal reasons, assume the role of principal caregiver.

This phenomenon has consequences. The family, cultural and emotional demands on a woman have been discussed ad nauseam. Clearly we must help women cope better. And we have been trying, but many of these well-meaning policies have an unintended consequence: they relegate the woman farther down the economic totem pole, and thereby reinforce the gender imbalance.

Women pay a higher economic price than men for having children: Time off taken during pregnancy, maternity and during the child’s growing years will, in addition to the compensation cut, curtail her job advancement. The mother assumes a larger share of day-to-day child care responsibilities, leaving her exhausted and more likely to leave the workforce. Her career suffers from unspoken setbacks – she may be bypassed for job opportunities because of her (actual or perceived) inability to take on more, and co-workers resent having to underwrite her flexi-hours.

All things being equal, the husband’s market value in the workplace will increase in comparison to his wife’s.

Time to re-look the incentives?

Current pro-women policies are designed to give women more moral and financial support to continue carrying a disproportionate part of the family burden. The problem is this: if the steps do not result in a re-distribution of the childcare burden from women, women will continue to not be able to cope well. These pro-family initiatives will reinforce the mother’s status as a needy special interest group, and continue the economic subjugation of the woman in the workplace.

We need to structure our incentives to change how the childcare burden is shared. Here are some brash proposals:

1. Force men to Step Up

The only viable way to lighten the load on the working mother is to forcibly re-distribute the work to the father. The government cannot mandate that the father attend school PTAs or take the sick child to the doctor, but it can even the burden.

In Sweden, expectant parents are collectively given 16 months’ parental leave, of which 3 months MUST be taken by the father. Singaporean parents now get about 5 months’ leave in the first year of a child’s life (including maternity leave, paternity leave and childcare leave). Let’s increase that to 6 months, of which at least 2 months must be taken by the father, on a “use it or lose it” basis.

By doing this we encourage the father to be more hands-on and hope that this will set a pattern for the rest of the child’s life. Just as importantly, we make both parents share the career sacrifice that having a child entails. This more balanced distribution will encourage a woman to have more babies and/or stay in the work force.

2. Pay mothers to come back to work

If having more babies and retaining women in the workforce are both national imperatives with economic upsides, then let’s structure our financial incentives in line with this.

Instead of paid maternity leave at the mother’s current salary level, she could be paid maternity leave compensation by the government at a multiple of her salary. This additional payout would be conditional on her coming back to work and remaining in employment for a certain minimum period.

By ascribing a higher economic value to a working mother, we financially recognize her twin contributions to the birth rate and to business generally. We encourage her to come back to work soon, and increase the financial incentives for the father to take on more responsibility in the home. If the couple has comparable earning power, this will tip the scales towards a more equitable distribution of the economic burden.

3. Have world class subsidized childcare

The father taking on the childcare burden is not enough. If it was only a matter of having an adult around to make sure the child did not hurt itself, our domestic worker population would take care of that. Parents in first world Singapore want to know that our children are getting the gold class in early education, in structures where we can spend pockets of time with our children.

We need to invest heavily in upgraded childcare facilities that are centres of excellence in early learning, not glorified babysitters. These centres should be accessible (perhaps near the work place for lunchtime “pop-ins”), affordable (so the government will need to heavily subsidize this) and must be open until late, so that career women have the flexibility of collecting their children after official working hours.

Yes, this will cost money and will be a huge logistics exercise, but that is something our country is very good at. And if the concern about the low birth rate and women leaving the work force is essentially around the economic cost, then surely we should spend money to make money.

Time to Step Up and Stump Up

Sheryl Sandberg says women need to Lean In. As a working mother, my biggest challenge is to not Keel Over. I say that it’s about time our policies got men to Step Up and, if it is serious about fixing the problem, for the government to Stump Up.

(Views expressed here are Stefanie’s own and do not represent the opinion of TSMP Law Corporation.)

An excerpt of this article was published in the Straits Times on 2 April 2016.


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