Commentary: How helping at home benefited my wife, our children and even me
To achieve gender equality in the Singapore workplace, we need to talk about equality at home, says HSBC’s Daniel Fitzpatrick.
SINGAPORE: My wife was about to return to work following the birth of our second child, and she was worried. How was she going to meet the demands of the job while supporting the needs of our young family?
Fully supportive of her career, I started to go into solution mode throwing out ideas around flexible work and a condensed work week, when she abruptly told me to stop talking.
She essentially said: “I don’t need your advice on how to structure my working hours. If you really want to be helpful, then give me the capacity to be successful.”
This absolutely stopped me in my tracks.
What she meant was that if I wanted to help with her career, I should help more with home life so she could then focus on being successful at work.
WORK-AS-USUAL FOR NEW DADS?
Another colleague recently joined HSBC Singapore from abroad just as his wife was about to have their second child. His wife has a very successful career in her own right.
But he remarked to me that when others heard about their story – starting over in a new country, in a new work environment and with a new child – most people would ask how she was going to manage, but rarely did they ask him the same. The inherent outside assumption was that his work-life would continue as normal.
These two examples raise a key challenge: If women are going to achieve gender equality at work, more focus is needed on achieving greater equality at home, through institutional and attitudinal changes.
Of course, businesses need to continue to develop policies and programmes that address women’s career advancement, pay and representation in senior roles, because inherent bias still remain.
But these policies and programmes are only one side of the equation.
EQUALITY AT WORK STARTS WITH EQUALITY AT HOME
More than half of married couples in Singapore are dual-income, which means both parents are needed to be present at home - doing house admin, the school drop-offs, or being the one who sits down and helps with homework.
So companies need to support this by installing parental leave policies and flexible work arrangements that allow and encourage both men and women to take a more active role at home.
That’s not always the case at the moment. But it’s not fair to lump this solely and squarely at the feet of companies’ policies either.
I know many companies in Singapore that have highly supportive policies but these arrangements are still not being used by men. Why is this?
THE PERCEPTION WE NEED TO ADDRESS
There could be a perception that work isn’t productive away from the office. Oddly, the COVID-19 outbreak is challenging this notion given that so many of us in Singapore are currently working from home.
So if the practical issues of working from home have been removed, then the remaining obstacle is a stigma that prioritising your family over work suggests you don’t take your career seriously.
As men, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking time or working flexibly to be with your family and there needs to be a greater shift in mindsets in this space.
Within companies, this requires a strong tone from the top that sets the standard. For example, our HSBC Singapore CEO will often work flexibly in order to attend school events or generally spend time with his kids.
A WAKE-UP CALL
As we approach International Women’s Day, it may seem ironic that I’m not actually talking about women. But the role of men is an essential and often overlooked part of achieving gender equality.
I got this wake-up call from my wife after the birth of our second child and it actually set me up for when our third child, Ella, arrived this time last year.
I made the decision to work three days a week from home, in the first eight months of her life, so that I could spend time with her, which also enabled my wife to return to work.
I had to think hard about how I would make it feasible for my family and for work. It was really tough, but I found a path that worked for me.
I couldn’t have done this without HSBC having the right policies and, more importantly, the right attitude - from both senior management and my own team and stakeholders. And of course, my wife Louise.
By the way, and as Louise would readily attest, I still have a long way to go in doing my share of the “home stuff”. I’ll keep trying.
But what my experience has told me is that it can’t be done by individuals alone – there also needs to be a societal and institutional groundswell that provides the impetus too.
Ella turned one this week and she’s begun to walk and talk.
Guess what her first word was? “Dadda”.
Daniel Fitzpatrick is Head of Communications at HSBC, Singapore.