It’s International Women’s Day again, and beyond the discounts and promos, we weigh in on the meatier issues surrounding this annual occasion: celebrating the progress and achievements of women, recognising the gaps that still persist, and pushing for the advancement of women’s rights.

A longtime advocate for women and workers, Koh Yan Ping, CEO of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO), recalls the going being tough when she first got involved in women’s development work more than ten years ago. “It was not easy to be heard, and we were really pushing hard for gender mainstreaming in policymaking, for both private and public sectors,” she recounts.

Since then, there has been a steady rise in female labour force participation rate, from 57.7 per cent in 2012 to 64.2 per cent in 2021, while employment rates of women reached its highest at 76.2 per cent last year, Koh shares. Though there continues to be underlying issues and challenges women face, she continues, “I am hopeful that the younger generation of girls and women can thrive in a society that embraces gender equity if we can all work together to realise the goals set out in the White Paper on Women’s Development.”

We speak to Koh on issues women still face at work and at home.

Why is the gender wage gap still a recurring issue even though people know it exists?

The Singapore gender pay gap stands at 14.4 per cent in 2020, narrowing from 16.3 per cent in 2018. A contributing factor to the gender wage gap between men and women is occupational segregation: more women are in lower-paid occupations, such as clerical support service and sales. More women are also found in sectors such as retail, F&B and social service with lower-paying jobs.

A key reason behind the persistent occupational segregation goes back to the societal norm of women as caregivers. In order to manage the conflicting demands of work and family, women would opt to take on jobs that are deemed to be less demanding or jobs that offer more flexibility in terms of location and time. More often than not these considerations affect the career options of women, thus leading to less competitive pay.

In male-dominated industries like construction, oil and gas, and engineering, more efforts are needed to enable women to fill the job roles where men are hired, due to their physical strength and attributes. Introducing technology to redesign these jobs in traditionally male-dominated or lower-paying sectors largely held by women can elevate the value of the job and increase the pay to achieve gender parity.

What are some areas in which we still have room for improvement, that people tend to overlook?

A key area to improve gender parity at the workplace is for businesses and employers to acknowledge that women have dual roles at home and at work that can affect their career progression. It is due to their propensity to play the primary role in caregiving that has impacted their progression, and not because they are less capable or committed than men.

Men should therefore be supported and encouraged by employers to contribute more equally to caregiving, through flexible work arrangements and caregiving leave to all employees. We warmly welcome the Government’s doubling of paid paternity leave from two weeks to four weeks in the recent Budget announcement, but it is also important for employers not to stigmatise men who utilise their paternity leave.

What do you hope the discussion surrounding IWD could be like in the years to come?

The means to achieving gender equality needs to start by recognising the differences between men and women. What we hope to achieve in pushing for gender equality is the empowerment of women to achieve their aspirations, whatever it may be and that they reach their fullest potential.

This is behind SCWO’s mission and vision to build Equal Space, Equal Voice and Equal Worth for women in Singapore. Women should feel safe wherever they are, free to live their lives as they choose without any danger of discrimination, harassment, sexual assault, and violence. Women should be equally represented in political, corporate and community leadership. Women should be fully recognised and valued for their contributions to society, family, and the workplace.

But we cannot do this alone. We need to involve more men in gender equality efforts at all levels. I hope that IWD celebrations can be inclusive with conscious efforts to include men who are important allies. We need to start young and begin actively engaging our boys and girls on this very important message.

Has the pandemic and its impact on working conditions and mindsets helped or hindered women?

COVID-19 had a significant impact on women because of the already existing gender biases. Due to the lockdown measures, reports found that women became more vulnerable to violence at home. Women were more susceptible to the negative economic impact caused by the pandemic as many of the jobs affected were held by women. During this challenging period, it further made me realise the significance of the work by women’s organisations like SCWO, and the importance of strengthening efforts in pushing for gender equality and welfare.

The pandemic has changed the way we work and propelled the adoption of technology. All these technologies have created significant impact on women because they have shifted workplace norms entirely. With more employers coming to realise the benefits of technology in areas of productivity and cost reduction, more are making telecommuting or hybrid work a permanent feature for employees. Such norms will lower the bias and stereotype against women who need flexible working arrangements (FWA).

However, we must be mindful that FWAs is not a feature that will only benefit mothers or women. Allowing employees to tap on FWAs allows fathers and men to share the caregiving responsibilities with their wives and female family members. We must provide a conducive and inclusive work environment or all caregivers, male or female, young or old. We need to normalise men as caregivers and break the gender stereotype.

Now that we’re settling into a new normal, what’s the reality that women face, especially for those in non-knowledge-based sectors or outside the labour force?

Regardless of the new normal, due to the stress in juggling the dual roles, the reality is that many mothers have to make a choice between their career and their family. According to the Ministry of Manpower’s Comprehensive Labour Force survey, there are over 650,000 women outside the workforce in 2022, with more than 80,000 of them not working mainly due to caregiving reasons. Most of these women leave the workforce for an extended period making their return to work challenging.

The White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development announced in March 2022 had identified 25 collective action plans by Government and community, under five key areas. SCWO is heartened to see emphasis placed on ensuring equal opportunities in the workplace among the key areas. From our consultations and engagements to seek solutions on how to better support women’s careers and aspirations, we have highlighted the need for employers to create positive workplace culture that supports the caregiving needs through progressive workplace practices like enhanced leave for caregiving, FWAs, support schemes such as lactation rooms, childcare subsidies, etc, to reduce the likelihood of mothers leaving the workforce entirely.

Another important area that employers need to place emphasis on is to build a safe workplace environment for women that protects them from discrimination and harassment. We are looking forward to the introduction of the new workplace fairness legislation and hope that the implementation of the recommendations in the interim report by the Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness would address victims’ fear of retaliation and empower them to seek redress for workplace discrimination. Further to these recommendations, we efforts should be dedicated to educating employers including line managers on the unconscious bias against women, including working mothers, that can lead to some forms of microaggression.

This article first appeared on GRAZIA Singapore.

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