Commentary: On gender equality and whether women can have it all

Commentary: On gender equality and whether women can have it all

President of Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, Dr June Goh, discusses life, career and family as a woman in Singapore and whether there is gender equality here.

SINGAPORE: I have worked with successive generations of female doctors and administrators over the years and can sense a change in the type of work women are engaged in and their drive to climb the corporate ladder.

There has been a shift within the field of medicine alone. The one-third quota on female medical students was lifted in 2003 after efforts by the Association of Women Doctors Singapore.

Compared to today, there were no female cardiothoracic and neurosurgeons 10 to 15 years ago. Now the number of female doctors applying to the sub-specialties has also increased.

All across Singapore, women are increasingly represented – women make up 61 per cent of those in science and 60 per cent of those in architecture and building.

This change did not happen by chance, but has been enabled with the passage of time and the increased educational attainment of women. In 2015, women made up more than 50 per cent of students enrolled in universities in Singapore.

But the level of progress across sectors is patchy.

Within the field of politics, there are only two female Cabinet ministers in a 21-strong Cabinet.

Female representation in leadership positions in business also remains an issue – 25 per cent of businesses in Singapore have no women in senior management positions.

And women only just exceeded 10 per cent of company directorship for the first time, according to a study by Diversity Action Committee on the top 100 largest primary listed companies in Singapore.

The Singapore Council of Women Organiations (SCWO) has an initiative BoardAgender to increase the number of women on company boards. As of now, the number stands at 9.7 per cent, and can stand to see some improvement.

There is also a persistent gender wage gap, much as this may be closing. In 2015, women earned more than 10 per cent less than men in all occupational categories except clerical work.

This gap is even greater as you look at more senior positions – female company directors of SGX-listed companies earn 43 per cent less than their male counterparts, according to one NUS Business School study.

Former DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman said the work environment becomes less fair for women as they move
Former DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman once said the work environment becomes less fair for women as they move into the top levels of corporate leadership. (File photo: AFP/Paul Morigi)


Some people have asked me if there is gender equality in Singapore but this is a loaded question – it depends on which profession, culture and individual family dynamics you want to dissect. Others have asked, is it not enough to have equality and harmony at home?

Regardless, most will agree that there is plenty of work to be done in eliminating barriers and unhealthy practices that hinder progress for women in Singapore, but we are getting there.

Singapore is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (known as CEDAW) and has worked to submit reports to the UN committee for years.

To be fair, women today are now less constrained by traditional expectations, by what were previously deemed as a man’s territory.

Success, whether to a man or woman, has the same definition – happiness, career satisfaction, providing a meaningful contribution to society and a fulfilling family life.

There is far less gender stereotyping today and men play important roles as caregivers in households. I have male colleagues who ask me to cover for them when they have to rush home to care for a sick child.

Another, a senior radiologist, worked part-time so that he could look after his young kids when his wife went abroad to further her studies. My husband too took time out when I did my postgraduate examinations.

Yet, women have a biological clock to consider. I have male colleagues who get married in their late forties and fifties and start a family then.


Can women have it all? Yes, mostly yes. But it all comes down to perseverance, foresight, luck and circumstances. You can’t control the latter two but with a positive outlook and a lot of grit, much can be worked around.

Apart from personal drive and abilities, many other factors come into play – family support, mentors and personal circumstances.

baby infant child newborn hand holding illustration
(File photo: AFP/Philippe Huguen)

During the SARS epidemic in 2003, I was called in to work full-time in highly contagious areas. In order to avoid infecting my extended family, I moved out for a few weeks, staying by myself until the critical period had subsided. I could concentrate fully on work only because I knew everything at home was taken care of.

Achieving success and happiness in both one’s career and family life is never dependent solely on oneself, regardless of gender.

One must never take for granted all the people who provide support for us to truly excel in what we do.

Personally, I have so many people to be grateful for: My husband, who is quietly supportive of my work passions, my parents and in-laws who do not place traditional expectations on me and have always enthusiastically stepped up in taking care of my children, and the dedicated and utterly dependable helpers who keep things at home running smoothly have been huge support.

Most of all, my kids also help me keep everything in perspective and remind me of what’s truly important in life.

I still place a great deal of importance in spending time with family – over weekend meals, important milestones and holidays. Even when our careers end, and they will eventually, it’s family and friends that remain.

People ask if being able to spend time with family and undertake meaningful activities at the SCWO and Dover Park Hospice mean I have to give up some career progression in return.

Whether this is a sacrifice really depends on where you expect your pinnacle to peak at and what your definition of success and personal satisfaction is.

These other activities outside work enable me to move beyond my comfort zone and learn so many things from ladies who are leaders in their own organisations and careers so I don’t consider them sacrifices.

Personally, the easiest trade-off for me is sleep, as well as things that many may consider luxuries – facials, haircuts, manicures. I usually get ready for most events in under half an hour.

I would have loved to spend more time with my eldest daughter when she was growing up. Kids just grow up so quickly and a phase passed cannot be experienced again. But that period of life coincided with when I had to work and pass my sub-specialty exams, and there was just no time.


Even when you work hard to plan out your path to success, sometimes life doesn’t pan out the way you plan. After graduating from medical school and getting married, my specialisation took me overseas to places I never thought I would live in.

As a young anaesthetist-in-training, life became a strained juggle of balancing immense studying, grueling daily work and exhausting night calls.

That’s when I got pregnant.

Starting a family also occurred at the most stressful of times. Without my family’s support, I wonder if I would have been able to complete my specialisation on time.

Around me, fellow women trainees who lacked such a support system had to go part-time and ended up prolonging their training time by years and years.

Being a doctor is demanding and time-consuming, but I have found small ways of spending time with my family – going out for ice cream on the weekends and leaving notes for each other. When my second child was born, things had settled. I was even able to start participating in some volunteer work.

I do my utmost to prioritise and compartmentalise, but when that doesn’t work out, I accept some messiness in my life and move on with it.

I’ve also learnt to improvise very well, a skill that I cannot stress enough.

And I think regardless of whether you think as a woman, you can have it all, that the most important thing is to be realistic about your goals and show appreciation to all who help and support you in your pursuit of success.

Ultimately it is about enjoying all that you do and finding a balance in life.

Dr June Goh is president of SCWO and director of neuro-anaesthesia at Singapore General Hospital.

Source: CNA/sl