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Big strides made by women in Singapore: Experts

Despite arguments that women leaders are still under represented, experts say progress has been impressive, considering that Singapore is a young nation. 

SINGAPORE: The Republic recently saw the appointment of its first female chancellor in the nation's educational history in September. That was just one example of big strides women have made here in recent years.

Despite arguments that women leaders are still under represented, experts say progress has been impressive, considering that Singapore is a young nation.

FIRST FEMALE CHANCELLOR

Dr Aline Wong said her appointment as SIM University's Chancellor came as a surprise. When interviewed, she expressed happiness that yet another leadership avenue has been opened up for women.

"Everywhere in the world, it is not that common yet for women to be in the leading positions in universities,” said Dr Wong. “Over the last 50 years in Singapore, you can see we have made tremendous progress, not only in terms of educational opportunities, job opportunities, but also in terms of things like leadership positions."

Dr Wong herself is no stranger to leadership. She entered politics in 1984 and was elected Member of Parliament in four successive General Elections. Prior to her retirement from politics in 2001, she was Senior Minister of State.

"In the early days, it was sheer discrimination,” she said. “I think that part, a lot of societies have overcome. Structural barriers have been removed for women. The society has been accepting women's leadership roles in more and more domains."

Even though it was tough being a woman in politics, Dr Wong proved her worth, along with other pioneering women leaders like Chan Choy Siong, Dr Dixie Tan, Yu-Foo Yee Shoon and Seet Ai Mee.

FIRST FEMALE FULL MINISTER TO HELM A MINISTRY

They paved the way for successive generations.

Lim Hwee Hua became Singapore's first female Cabinet minister in 2009. In January 2013, Halimah Yacob became Singapore's first female Speaker of Parliament.

More recently, after the General Election in September, Grace Fu was appointed as the Culture, Community and Youth Minister, making her the first female full minister to helm a ministry. She also became the first woman to be appointed Leader of the House.

"With more women coming on board the political landscape, we hope to have a greater voice for women,” said Ms Fu. “There are issues that women can probably relate to better. For example, when it comes to childcare issues - balancing family as well as career. Also, specific issues such as children's education, somehow as a mother, women have a stronger voice or certain opinions that may be slightly different from the fathers."

Ms Fu also used the Golden Jubilee Baby Gift as an example. "You can see some of the women's touches in coming up with the gifts, and also the design of it,” she said. “In presenting policies, sometimes those are important details as well, 'how do we make the communication, the packaging more palatable to the public?'"

Ms Fu also elaborated on some undeniable challenges that female leaders face, especially in politics.

"Women in politics sometimes unfairly attracts its own set of challenges,” she said. “How does she look? How does she perform? I think sometimes women can't deal with those public criticisms as well as the men. They will have to get over it, build up the resilience to criticism like that and just do their very best."

FORMING THE “CRITICAL MASS”

There are currently 22 women in Parliament out of a total of 92 seats - making up nearly 24 per cent of the House. That is lower than what the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, ratified by the Singapore Government in 1995, recommends.

It says that women political representation should be at least 30 per cent to form the "critical mass" that will have a real impact on political style and content of decisions.

"In addressing that issue, we have to be careful that we don't come across as arguing for quota representation,” said Associate Professor Paulin Straughan from the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. “Rather, it should come from a skills, value-add perspective. Is a woman different from a man in the boardroom? Will a woman bring a different perspective into the political arena?"

Experts also say mindsets are still fairly traditional when it comes to marriage and family. "Survey after survey tells us that women continue to do more at home,” said Assoc Prof Straughan. “If you want to have more women step up, and step out, we need to address those gender stereotypical expectations."

“We're getting better. Recent shift in policies have made it easier for men to take leave to be with their children, so these are big steps forward, not little steps."

MALE VS FEMALE ATTRIBUTES

Besides policies, some argue that possessing male like attributes is key for female leaders to succeed.

"Whether they have attributes that are male type attributes is really not relevant nor important,” said Mdm Halimah. “If we assume that just because they have those kind of attributes, they will automatically be able to be better leaders, I think those are really quite simplistic."

She added that when women are chosen for leadership positions, not just in politics but other types of leadership positions, it is important that they are chosen based on whether they can contribute, add value to the decision-making process and policy-making process.

As the first female Speaker of Parliament, Mdm Halimah hopes she will not be the last.

"Willingness must be on the part of the women wanting to offer themselves, recognising that their voice matters, their place at the table is important and that they can contribute by making policy-making a lot more diverse, a lot more robust," she said.

So, although Singapore is making big steps on this front, experts maintain that more can be done to change cultural mindsets as the nation progresses.