Commentary: Turns out few understand maternity discrimination in Singapore
Singapore netizens employ common narratives to dismiss the discrimination faced by mums and pregnant women at the workplace. It’s time to put these misconceptions to rest this Mother’s Day, says AWARE’s Sugidha Nithi.
SINGAPORE: Long before anti-discrimination workplace legislation was mooted in Singapore, legal benefits and protections were already in place for working mothers: For example, the right to at least three months of maternity leave.
However, lest you take these protections as a sign of widespread progressive attitudes, consider this: Maternity discrimination is by far the most common form of discrimination seen by AWARE’s Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory (WHDA).
Since its inception in 2019, WHDA has received 218 cases of maternity discrimination - from untoward job interview questions to wrongful dismissals, denial of bonuses and outright harassment. In 2022, such cases made up 85 per cent of the service’s entire discrimination caseload.
A peek at the online discourse around this issue is as telling as it is bleak. A wide swathe of Singapore’s netizens do not seem to think that maternity discrimination is unjust in the first place. They employ common narratives to dismiss and invalidate prejudices against pregnant women and mothers at the workplace.
This Mother’s Day weekend, let us unpack these narratives, in the hopes of doing away with insensitive and uninformed reactions for good.
ARGUMENT 1: WOMEN MUST ACCEPT THE REPERCUSSIONS OF DECIDING TO HAVE CHILDREN
Or, as one Facebook user put it: “No one put a gun to your head to get pregnant… (as a working mum,) be prepared to live a mediocre life with a mediocre job.”
It’s true that in an ideal society, every individual should be able to freely decide whether and when to have children. Yet in our patriarchal world, that decision can have vastly different repercussions, predicated on gender.
The disproportionate burden of childcare means that women are often forced to choose between motherhood and career, constantly searching for a functional balance. On the other hand, men are typically able to have children and thrive in their careers without one compromising the other. Why is this trade-off presented to one gender and not the other?
In fact, for many men, fatherhood does not hurt their professional prospects - it enhances them. Research by US think tank Third Way discovered a “fatherhood bonus” whereby, all else being equal, fatherhood increases men’s earnings by over 6 per cent.
The reasons posited for this include both the material (for instance, men increasing their working hours upon fatherhood to provide for their families) and the imaginary (such as fathers being perceived by superiors to be more mature, committed and stable).
This lies in contrast to the fate that awaits new mums, frequently called the “motherhood penalty”: A drop in earnings due to spending fewer hours at work to take care of the child.
ARGUMENT 2: WORKING MUMS HURT A COMPANY’S BOTTOM LINE
This argument assumes that female workers having children is fundamentally bad for business: Not only do they take time off while pregnant, their divided attention also worsens performance. However, this premise is flawed.
First, we must remember that bearing and raising children, most of whom become workers and support the economy, is a vital contribution to Singapore’s growth. Countries like Japan show how perilous falling birth rates are to a nation’s survival.
Research also suggests that the cost of replacing unhappy workers outweighs the cost of providing maternity leave and other benefits. In California, 87 per cent of businesses found no increased costs from the state’s paid maternity leave programme, while 9 per cent enjoyed cost savings from reduced employee turnover and not having to pay for staff benefits.
Indeed, when employees feel cared for and free to use their leave entitlement, they are likely to be more productive and loyal to their employers. Companies worried about their bottom line should take note.
ARGUMENT 3: CHILDLESS COLLEAGUES ARE FORCED TO PICK UP THE SLACK
One Facebook commenter recounts a personal experience: “I have to do your job when you (are) on maternity leave. I was in that situation for close to one year, helping my two colleagues to cover their duty ... I can’t rest well and I get no increment on it too.”
It is not fair for colleagues to face abrupt increases to their workload when a colleague goes on maternity leave. But surely the fault in that situation lies not so much with the pregnant colleague, as with the employer who failed to ensure adequate cover for an employee who is merely exercising an entitlement.
With sufficient lead time and preparation, organisations should be able to ensure a smooth transition that prioritises both employee well-being and business needs, making up for a temporary absence without punishing the rest of their workforce.
Given their limited resources, small- and medium-size enterprises may find it challenging to adequately cover workers on maternity leave. This is where the Singapore government can provide additional support for them as part of its upcoming anti-discrimination legislation.
People take time off from work not just for childbearing, but also illness and injury, long-term health conditions and caregiving responsibilities. We all want compassion from our employers and colleagues during such times, and hope that, no matter our personal circumstances, we will not be perceived as less competent or dedicated.
ARGUMENT 4: AS A CHILDLESS WOMAN, MATERNITY DISCRIMINATION IS NOT MY PROBLEM
As one Facebook user argued, because maternity discrimination only affects a subset of women, it should not be considered as a serious gender discrimination issue. “As a voluntarily childfree woman,” she wrote, “I prioritise work and have experienced equality on merit (with) my male peers.”
Unfortunately, many women in Singapore have not been so lucky as to enjoy a fair and merit-based professional history - whether or not they are mothers. Women are sometimes punished simply for their childbearing potential.
AWARE’s WHDA has seen clients who faced discriminatory attitudes despite not being pregnant or planning to be pregnant: For example, invasive questions during recruitment about whether they plan to get married or become pregnant. So maternity discrimination does affect childless women too, often directly.
ARGUMENT 5: STOP COMPLAINING, JUST QUIT AND FIND A NEW JOB
One Facebook user made this point: “Don’t like the job? Just throw letter and find a greener pasture out there ... No one forces you to work on.”
The problem with this argument is that, like Argument 1, it presents an individual solution, namely switching jobs, to the systemic problem of unfair societal attitudes towards mothers.
What’s more, putting the onus on people facing discrimination to retreat from injustice smacks of victim-blaming. Why are we not asking the perpetrators of discrimination to reform and make up for their wrong-doing?
Securing a new job is not so easy for those facing maternity discrimination. Many employers are hesitant to hire mothers or pregnant candidates, which can leave them stranded without income for an indeterminate amount of time.
Anna (not her real name), a client at AWARE’s WHDA, went through this very ordeal. After being wrongfully dismissed from her workplace after announcing her pregnancy, it took her months to find a new job, despite being a consistent high-performer. She eventually took a contract role that did not offer benefits: A far-from-ideal situation that she accepted in desperation.
The negative impact of maternity discrimination on mothers and future generations should not be overlooked. Studies in other countries have found that pregnancy discrimination is significantly associated with postpartum depression and poor socioemotional development in infants.
MISCONCEPTIONS BUSTED. NOW WHAT?
The beliefs that underlie maternity discrimination - that caregiving makes someone less committed to their job, and that physical conditions like pregnancy impinge on professional performance - underpin other forms of discrimination too, such as against people with disabilities and people with caregiving responsibilities.
Instead of forcing women and other groups of people to drop out of the workforce, we need to address discriminatory ideas at their root. We hope that Singapore’s upcoming anti-discrimination legislation will not only stamp out the most egregious behaviours at workplaces, but also inculcate fairer and more inclusive attitudes in society.
One of the big-ticket items announced in this year’s Budget was that paternity leave entitlements would be doubled from two to four weeks. This goes towards acknowledging that men can and should pull their weight at home, and that outside of childbearing and breastfeeding, nothing separates women from men in terms of parenting ability.
Of course, some hand-wringing followed this announcement about whether fathers would in fact forgo this entitlement, for fear of eliciting the very same discriminatory reactions historically reserved for mums.
All we can say to working dads is this: If you find yourself the recipient of prejudices around your decision to have kids and participate in their upbringing ... feel free to use the above arguments to defend yourselves.
Sugidha Nithi is Director of Advocacy, Research and Communications at AWARE.