Stefanie Yuen Thio: Gender stereotypes mean flexi-work rules can turn into boon or burden for women

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StewardshipDiversity and Inclusion

6 May 2024

Stefanie Yuen Thio: Gender stereotypes mean flexi-work rules can turn into boon or burden for women

In a perfect world, every worker would be accorded the necessary flexible work arrangements (FWAs) to balance work with life’s circumstances.

Such arrangements would especially benefit women, who tend to be primary caregivers in their homes.

In our work at SG Her Empowerment (SHE) to promote gender equality, advocating for FWAs would seem to be a no-brainer.

Yet, we at SHE believe the issue is more nuanced. There are potential unintended consequences to gender equity we should consider.

Since the guidelines on FWA requests were rolled out on April 15, we have seen some typical knee-jerk reactions.

From the employee’s perspective, it is a step forward that all workplaces should, by December, implement a system that allows any employee to apply for FWA.

As these are still only guidelines without significant legal consequences, however, their efficacy depends on employers setting up and implementing these systems in good faith.

From the employer’s perspective, these guidelines potentially add to already-high business costs in Singapore.

Some employers with a more balanced view, and those aligned to the tripartite work group on FWA requests that made the recommendations, have seen this as a mechanism that balances the economic and social needs in Singapore.

 

FWAs: Entrenching women as primary caregivers at home?

Social and economic needs aside, a crucial consideration from a gender equity standpoint is whether FWAs – be they flexible in place, time or load – will inadvertently be detrimental for the advancement of women.

Already, studies the world over show that women take on most of the mental and real load of running households and caring for children and the elderly.

This is estimated to represent US$11 trillion of unpaid work, or 9 per cent of global gross domestic product.

In Singapore, the 40 per cent take-up rate of the government-paid two-week paternity leave over 2018 to 2020 suggests that the global norm applies here.

FWAs would benefit women in the short term, but may further entrench women as primary caregivers in the home. They would allow more women to enter or re-enter the work force.

Without a corresponding re-distribution of home care duties, however, they could just add to the caregiving load on female shoulders.

 

Unintended longer-term consequences

This potential negative effect on women has not taken into account how businesses would react if they perceive the costs of FWAs as unnecessary and prohibitive.

The knock-on effect on hiring, opportunity and advancement decisions could create a vicious circle for women.

There could be dire longer-term consequences – with fewer women being hired, and an even leakier pipeline as they move up the rungs.

All this is not to say FWAs are bad.

In fact, employees who need some workplace flexibility should feel empowered to discuss with their employers how to make this possible, be they men or women, without FWAs being positioned as a perk or benefit.

The mindset that productivity is only on-site at set hours is anachronistic – a legacy of the industrial revolution – in our global knowledge economy.

Yet, providing FWAs without addressing the complexity in the ecosystem – that of entrenched gender mindsets – may be counterproductive for the long term advancement of gender equity.

 

Gender biases compounded

There are two layers of mindset biases we contend with as we try to lighten the load for workers.

At the macro level, society is rife with traditional gender stereotypes. Women are still seen as better-equipped to take on household and care-giving duties. Men – who may want to have the flexibility to be primary caregivers – feel the pressure to prioritise their careers to be breadwinners for their families.

On the micro level, there are biases related to FWAs in the workplace that need to be understood and addressed. Initial research shows that those who take up FWAs are perceived to be less committed and ambitious, which therefore means fewer opportunities for development or promotion. The low take-up in paternity leave could be a proxy for this.

If the ecosystem – whether employers or employees or those at home – holds these biases unchecked, taking the legislative route will not have the impact we want.

If businesses spend time only complying with the letter of the law, rather than its spirit, any guidelines or laws will only be performative.

 

A more complete solution

FWAs are a good start, but can only be part of the solution to level playing fields for both sexes in the workplace.

The tougher questions and solutions we should be exploring include how we can change the mindsets of both men and women so that FWAs are not seen as merely helping females remain economically relevant; and how we can develop Singapore’s societal and business cultures, and their attendant processes, so women and men have equal and real access to FWAs to have a healthier, better work-life experience.

Other civil society groups are already working on this. Centre For Fathering, for instance, has been encouraging fathers to play a more active role at home by tapping FWAs.

More on-the-ground research – which SHE is undertaking – is needed to understand the mindsets endemic to the Singapore workplace, and what cultural and process shifts need to be undertaken.

FWAs are necessary but not sufficient to help women enjoy increased and equitable career opportunities.

The harder work of changing gender mindsets must take place in tandem to avoid unintended consequences.

The first step we should take is to see that these mindset biases are ours – we share them, they don’t belong to others.

How do we feel about colleagues who take more time off to care for their sick kids or parents? Do we automatically think this means more work for ourselves? Do we unconsciously discount their contributions, if only a little? As employers, do we downgrade employees who request FWAs?

It is in acknowledging our own biases that we can begin the tough work as employees, employers, fathers, mothers, daughters and sons to make the signal change we need as a society so we all can thrive in the workplace.

 

This op-ed, published in The Business Times, was penned by Stefanie Yuen Thio in her capacity as chairperson of SG Her Empowerment (SHE).