Musarrat Maisha Reza, Intern 2016-2017
Singapore is a young nation and we celebrated our 50th year of independence two years back in 2015. Over the past 51 years, we have made remarkable progress that has elevated us from an emerging nation to a developed first world nation. Our stable economic growth and prosperity embraced by a multi-cultural and multi-religious society has made this tiny red dot a notable country on the world map. Our education system is one of the world’s best where both boys and girls are given equal opportunities and access to high quality education regardless of gender, social status and age. This helps to propel our women into the workforce. However, our breathtaking economic growth and progress is entangled with inequality of the genders during career progression in the workforce. Our specific challenge as a nation with regards to gender inequality lies in the ‘Leaking pipeline’ where women opt out/leave their careers during the transition between mid-management and senior management positions.
I have to acknowledge that this indeed is a labyrinth that needs to be navigated step-wise and multiple barriers need to be broken. Hence, there is no one-stop solution that can overcome these challenges overnight. However, I have suggested three policy options and will rank them in terms of priority of action that will enable women to access leadership positions in their careers.
Over the last 50 years, gender equality and women’s leadership have shown significant improvement around the globe. Although we have made progress, we still lag behind in the rate of our progress in this arena. Hence, we have a long way to go to enable our country to function at full potential since female leaders are still a pool of untapped talent and resource. Enabling women to access leadership roles will require a paradigm shift of social and cultural norms and structural barriers which, still exist in our society. Women in Singapore and around the world continue to be strikingly under-represented in echelons of formal leadership. In Singapore, women account for just 1 in 5 senior management positions and hold less than 10% of corporate board seats.1 It appears that the glass ceiling is what stands between women and leadership positions. However, it has been found that the micro challenges that women face in their everyday lives are the biggest barriers to their leadership.2
We are suffering from a tremendous loss when we do not maximize the talent utility of female leaders. However, we can no longer afford to be short-sighted. Engaging women’s capital and talent becomes imperative for our competitiveness in the global economy. Singapore has been proudly labelled as a knowledge-based economy since we do not possess natural resources. Human capital is our most effective and precious resource which, gives us our key competitive advantage.3 When we separated from Malaysia in 1965, our late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew understood that Singapore’s success and survival depended on its people, and hence, we now have one of the highest literacy rates among our working youth and female education and participation in the workforce. We could not afford to be selective or show discrimination towards women since every brain was a valuable resource.3 We have mobilized our people to take that leap forward and now it is time again that we leapfrog on promoting women’s leadership. Therefore, we require sophisticated policies which, will be instrumental in enhancing gender equality and diversity in leadership roles.
Policy option 1 – introducing the quota
Although we have a high participation rate in the work force, we must understand that this participation may not have been due to our ‘mind-set’ that women and men have similar potential and capacity and hence, should have the opportunity to utilize their talent. In the early days after our independence, it was necessary for our country to survive and hence our esteemed government mobilized both men and women into the workforce. Today, we have such high participation in the workforce as it is essential for both educated men and women to earn a living to finance our high standard of living. However, our people are still embedded strongly in the culture where men are the decision makers whether at home or at work. Gender stereotypes where women’s primary role is caregiving and management of the home, and motherhood seen as a ‘weakness’ also hinder their promotion to higher management positions.4
We also face the problem of the unconscious bias which affects us in every aspect of our lives. People tend to gravitate towards people who look like them, think like them and come from similar backgrounds which may influence the decision making processes. Research has shown that although females are not specifically rejected due to their gender alone, a similar resume from a male tends to have a more favourable response since men currently dominate positions of leadership.4
To break this barrier, it is time for our honourable government to take affirmative action. In 1995, we acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and it has been more than 20 years since.4 CEDAW recommends that women’s political representation should be at least 30 per cent to have a real impact on political style and content of decisions but we have to achieve that goal. We have indeed taken commendable steps towards gender equality but positions of leadership in the parliament, for instance, are still disappointing. Only 5 of the 37 office-holders and 1 out of 20 full Ministers are women.4 Change that has occurred organically has moved at a glacial pace and the fastest way to increase women’s leadership and representation in the public and private sectors is to implement the quota system.
For instance, within the next 5 years, we should mandate that women make up 30% of parliaments and ministerial positions along with board seats in public and private sectors. A quota system will help break into the seemingly impermeable circle of leaders who are mostly made up of men, to normalize the idea that women can assume leadership positions. Exposure to female leaders will then reduce the bias that women are not capable of holding positions of decision making. 46 nations around the world have implemented a gender quota in politics and have shown an average of 21.9% of women elected into office whereas only 15.3% women were elected into office in countries without a quota.2 Our honourable government has recently announced that the upcoming Presidential election will be reserved for Malay candidates. This would ensure that our multi-cultural diversity is maintained and well represented in our government since we have not had a Malay President after Mr. Yusof Ishak in 1970. It will be a big milestone for our nation if a quota is implemented in order enable women to assume leadership positions.
However, implementing a quota may apply undue pressure on companies and governments. Our country thrives on meritocracy rather than symbolic representation. It may also compromise the quality or output of boards and organizations if women who are not competent enough are promoted just to fill up the quota. Hence, this may not be the best option to implement immediately, but could be implemented after sufficient time is provided to train, mentor and groom women for these positions.
Policy option 2 – Addressing the leaky pipeline
One of the unique challenges Singapore faces along with many Asian nations is the leaky pipeline. Women tend to exit the workforce during the mid-management to senior management transition due to family responsibilities: mainly childcare and elder care. This is a stage where we lose many talented and skilled women. Traditional gender roles remain strong in Singapore, in particular for women who are married. A large part of domestic responsibility is bestowed upon women even when they are working. Increasingly Singaporean women entering the workforce are opting out of marriage entirely especially when work life balance becomes a challenge. If women desire greater financial independence, they are pessimistic about marriage which, in turn is causing the decline of marriages in Singapore.5
It is becoming an ‘either or’ option where career and family life are two parallel roads that can never merge. We face a tremendous loss as a nation if women are compelled to tread on only one of the paths. Opting out of marriage and family responsibilities in an attempt to fulfil their career ambitions will only enhance the downward spiral of birth rates while deepening the problem of an ageing population.5 An ageing population becomes a burden on our government and on taxpayers. We have policies in place to encourage young couples to get married. For instance, multiple grants and schemes are in place to facilitate home purchase and ownership so that young couples can start their married lives early. Baby bonuses and tax benefits for working mothers also aim ease the decline in birth rates.
It is embedded in our culture that children are responsible for taking care of their aged parents and to encourage this, SGD20,000 Proximity Housing Grants are awarded when couples purchase homes near (within 2 kilometres) their elderly parents.6 However, both elder care and raising children require significant time and effort and social norms leave this responsibility to women. Inflexible working hours and family responsibilities compel many women to opt for family. Hence, we lose a huge reservoir of potential when talented and skilled women exit the workforce.
It is therefore, our responsibility to ensure that flexible working hours become a part of government and company policy to ensure that both men and women can enjoy flexible working hours in companies along with improved infrastructure for childcare and elder care. Childcares which, maintain high standards should be made free or heavily subsidized to ensure that children are well cared for while parents are at work. Currently, high quality childcare facilities are too expensive and hence, remains out of reach for middle income families.7 Moreover, levies and costs imposed to hire domestic helpers and nurses for aged citizens should be reduced so that families are not faced with the choice between career progression and caring full time for elders in the family.8 Systematic support from our government will enable both men and women to preserve their professions without compromising their family lives.
Policy option 3 – Widespread campaigning
To address cultural and social norms that hinder women’s leadership, widespread campaigning can be launched to educate our population to change their perception of typical gender roles; that both men and women should share household, childcare and elder care responsibilities.
In 2014, Singapore’s Diversity Action Committee (DAC) was formed and adopted a multi-stakeholder approach to raise awareness on the significance and benefits of being gender inclusive on company boards. Their aim is to build up the representation of women directors on company boards.1 The DAC launched the Statement of Good Practice in Executive Search which is a comprehensive process that will engage formal search and nomination of talented women for board positions. They are also encouraging mentorship programmes and network-building opportunities for women who are nominated for senior leadership roles of board positions. Gender diversity awareness initiatives are also launched for female candidates who are being considered for senior management or board positions. Awareness initiatives in companies are also beneficial in helping to re-shape our culturally moulded mind-set. Stepping up these campaigning efforts around the nation could be an effective way to facilitate a mindset shift. We have launched several campaigns previously which have been highly successful, one of which, was to encourage the public to view the teaching profession with higher regard and reaffirm the importance of education. The tagline, ‘For life’s greatest lessons, it all begins with a teacher’ was supported by thought-provoking videos and messages on social media platforms and in public areas.9 It became a highly popular campaign that provoked the rethinking of the teaching profession. We can use the past successful campaigning techniques as a benchmark to launch a widespread intensive campaign to encourage a mindset change in accepting women in leadership positions.
However, we need to acknowledge that this is a complex and slow process that will require long-term commitment and resources so that our society will value both men and women’s talents, accept women as potential leaders who are capable as men. It will take time for the public to become more open to the convergence of stereotypical gender roles such as women leading at their workplaces and men contributing more at home. These shifts will give women equal voice and agency in the home and in society at large, and facilitate their role as leaders.
It has been decades since we have been discussing gender equality and enabling women to access the leadership space in Singapore. However, it is now time that we seriously commit to more deliberate and explicit measures in advancing women’s leadership. The best policy option that I would recommend to implement immediately would be Policy Option 2, to fix the leaky pipeline problem of women exiting the workforce in the middle of their careers. In order to have women ascend to formal leadership positions, we need to ensure that the pool of talented women does not dwindle and hence, be available to be considered for these positions. We are also undoubtedly embedded in cultural norms and hence, it would be imperative to break the barriers by introducing affirmative action (Policy Option 1). However, affirmative action may not be the immediate best solution, given that women are leaving the workforce. It may also be faced with resentment if companies do not find sufficient qualified women. Hence, if affirmative action is implemented, it needs to be enforced over a period of time, once there are sufficient mentored and skilled women ready to take up these positions. Moreover, this will only be possible when men participate in domestic duties to a larger extent while the sole burden of childcare and elder care is lifted from the shoulders of women. Systematic support from the government will be vital for shaping company policies. Lastly, widespread campaigning (Policy Option 3) is an excellent supplement to the other policies but cannot be solely relied on since organic change is slow and time consuming. We must work quickly to introduce capable women to leadership positions to maintain our global competitive advantage and progress.
1. Walters, R. (n.d.). Female leadership in Singapore. Retrieved from https://www.robertwalters.com.sg/career-advice/female-leadership-in-singapore.html
2. Tuminez, A. S., Duell, K., & Majid, H. A. (2012). Rising to the Top?: A Report on Women's Leadership in Asia (p. 57). Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
3. Hussain, Z. (2015, March 24 ). How Lee Kuan Yew engineered Singapore's economic miracle. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-32028693
4. Women’s representation in politics here still lacking. (2015, October 10). Retrieved from http://www.todayonline.com/voices/womens-representation-politics-here-still-lacking, TODAY
5. Lee, P. (2016, February 14). Tackling Singapore's baby shortage. Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/tackling-singapores-baby-shortage
6. Living With/ Near Parents or Married Child . (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.hdb.gov.sg/cs/infoweb/residential/buying-a-flat/resale/living-with-near-parents-or-married-child, Housing & Development Boards
7. Goy, P. (2016, May 2). Putting a price on childcare: the costlier the better? Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/putting-a-price-on-childcare-the-costlier-the-better
8. Lin, P. (2015, July 9). How Much Does It Really Cost To Hire a Domestic Helper in Singapore. Retrieved from https://blog.moneysmart.sg/family/how-much-does-it-really-cost-to-hire-a-domestic-helper-in-singapore/
9. For life’s greatest lessons, it all begins with a teacher. (2016, February 26). Retrieved from http://www.ddb.asia/catchfire/for-lifes-greatest-lessons-it-all-begins-with-a-teacher/, DDB ASIA, SINGAPORE