Commentary: For women of different cultures, classes, backgrounds and age – it’s still a man’s world

Commentary: For women of different cultures, classes, backgrounds and age – it’s still a man’s world

On International Women’s Day, nine women say what they have in common is their experience of an environment that is still largely a man’s world.

SINGAPORE: It’s International Women’s Day, a day set aside in calendars around the world to celebrate women, our contributions and achievements, and to focus minds on what still needs to be done to achieve gender parity.

We are a group of nine women aged 19 to 91. Some of us have children and grandchildren and some are childless.

Some have pursued careers and made a mark in our fields, others have chosen to focus our efforts on our families. Some are at the beginning, and others at the end, of our work careers.

We are from different cultures, social economic classes and backgrounds.

What is common among us is our experience of an environment that is still, despite all the progress women have made in Singapore, largely a man’s world. 

We each have our own stories of how this is true in our lives - in our families, our schools and institutions, our workplaces, our places of worship and recreation. And we know this is true too for many people in Singapore.

LONG WAY OFF FROM PARITY

We are a long way off from gender parity and this is reflected in facts and figures that are publicly available. 

Some say that we should not be complaining as we now have a female Head of State.

But the problem is that the odds are heavily stacked against Singapore having another female Head of State after Madam Halimah Yacob ends her term.

The recently tightened eligibility criteria makes it even more difficult for another woman to be elected to the role. Only a minute number of women are in the senior positions that make them eligible to run for President. 

Swearing in of President Halimah Yacob with Lee Hsien Loong and Sundaresh Menon
Madam Halimah Yacob talking to PM Lee Hsien Loong after taking the Oath of Office in the presence of Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon. (Photo: MCI)

Beyond the Istana, there are still too few women in leadership positions who can be role models for young girls. We have 21 ministers in the Cabinet; but only two are women.

It’s not much better in the corporate world. Women make up just 15 per cent of chief executive officers in Singapore, and only 11 per cent of the boards of directors of listed companies.

The list of imbalances and inequities goes on and on.

READ: A commentary on addressing bias in the pursuit of gender equality.

LESS WOMEN WORK AND EVEN THEN FOR LESS THAN MEN

The female labour force representation in 2017 was just under 60 per cent, compared to 76 per cent for men, according to the Ministry of Manpower. Women make up two-thirds of the population that is not in the labour force.

Many of the women who drop out of the work force because of marriage and family do not return to work. Those that do return to work often find they have lost out to their male counterparts in promotions and wages.

The gender wage gap last year was just under 12 per cent, better than the 20 per cent of a decade ago, according to the Ministry of Manpower but there is still a gap. Much of this might be because women take time out from their careers for childcare.

But there may well also be some degree of discrimination against women. A survey by Jobstreet in 2016 found that 66 per cent of women who work say they experience unfair treatment in terms of opportunities for career progression, remuneration, performance appraisal, and recruitment because of their gender.  

Of the women who are not in the workforce, 42 per cent cite family responsibilities (childcare, housework, caregiving to other family members) as the reason for not being in the labour force, according to the Ministry of Manpower.

Of the men who do not work, less than 3 per cent cite this reason. 

Family Singapore
A family walking in Singapore. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

GIVE FATHERS MORE OPPORTUNITIES TO CONTRIBUTE

The Ministry of Social and Family Development found in a 2013 study that 51 per cent of women said they provided the bulk of the family’s caregiving needs while only 4 per cent of the men said they were the primary caregivers.

Similarly, 59 per cent of the women did most of the household chores, compared with just 3 per cent of the men.

The truth is that many men want to contribute much more as fathers and share the caregiving role but it’s hard for them to do so because there is a gender gap in parental leave.

Fathers only get two weeks of paternity leave and half the adoption leave given to mothers. 

TIME’S UP

This year, International Women’s Day takes place amidst a heightened awareness of the inequalities and injustices women face.

The #MeToo movement that began last year in Hollywood has spread around the world, encouraging women to speak up about the sexual harassment and discrimination they have suffered and forcing employers and policymakers to pay new attention to these problems.

There is growing recognition that change is needed, that it cannot go on being a man’s world.

We agree. It really is #TimesUp. It’s 2018 and it’s time we got to grips with the gender disparities in Singapore.

French feminists have said they believe the #metoo campaign could mark a turning point on attitudes
French feminists have said they believe the #metoo campaign could mark a turning point on attitudes towards sexual predation in a country long seen as soft on the issue. (Photo: AFP/Bertrand GUAY)

It’s time to acknowledge that there are biases built into the system that are putting women at a disadvantage. It’s time to make a concerted effort to achieve gender parity.

A WORLD WHERE GENDER IS BUT ONE FACET

The changes needed will take time, but we hope that, at the very least, the youngest in our group and our children and grandchildren will enjoy a world where there are no longer any gender barriers that limit them from reaching their full potential at home, in the workplace, in leadership, and in public office.

Every day at school, our children recite the pledge, committing themselves to building “a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”.

There is a strong case for gender parity on the simple grounds of justice and equality. But there is also a case for seeking gender parity because it will make our society happier and more prosperous.

Studies have found the countries that are the most gender-equal are those that score highest on the happiness scale. Other studies have discovered that the more gender-equal companies are, the better it is for both workers and the companies.

The rates of retention are higher; there is higher job satisfaction and higher rates of productivity.  

Singaporeans, especially the young, increasingly want to be dual-career and dual-career couples. Couples that are egalitarian are happier couples. When housework and childcare responsibilities are shared between parents, children do better in school and have higher rates of achievement.

primary school students
File photo of students at a primary school.

Our children are our future and caring for children should be treated as a community responsibility. The Government should set the policy framework for this, creating the conditions for both parents to share equally in the caregiving and family-raising.

More must be done to change the attitudes that now make it difficult for men to play an equal role in parenting and homemaking.

There is also the challenge of bringing an end to violence against women.  

Nearly one in ten of the 2,006 female respondents in Singapore in a 2010 study on violence against women reported having experienced at least one incident of violence by a man after turning age 16. More than one-third of victims felt that their life was in danger during the most recent incident of violence.

As long as men continue to see women as subordinate and secondary, as long as men feel they have a right to women and their bodies, as long as men see it as their world, we will have the problem of rape, molest and sexual harassment.

FILE PHOTO - Larry Nassar, a former team USA Gymnastics doctor who pleaded guilty in November 2017
Larry Nassar, a former team USA Gymnastics doctor who pleaded guilty in November 2017 to sexual assault charges, stands in court during his sentencing hearing in the Eaton County Court in Charlotte, Michigan on Feb 5, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Rebecca Cook)

We can only begin to tackle this challenge comprehensively when we embrace true gender equality and put in place policies and practices that embody this principle.

We need to signal to young girls and boys that we see them as equals, that they can pursue their interests and dreams without the constraints of society-imposed gender roles, that it is not a man’s world, or a woman’s world, but our world.

A world where gender, like race and religion, is just one facet of an individual.

Ann Wee, 91, is a retired professor of social work. 

Constance Singam, 81, is a writer and social activist. 

Kanwaljit Soin, 76, is an orthopaedic surgeon and former nominated member of parliament. 

Margaret Thomas, 66, is a former journalist and co-editor of Our Lives to Live: Putting a Woman's Face to Change in Singapore.

Corinna Lim, 53, is executive director of AWARE. 

Valerie Gan Garry, 40, is a homemaker. 

Carrie Tan, 36, is executive director of Daughters of Tomorrow. 

Filzah Sumartono, 28, is co-editor of Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak out. 

Nur Hikmah Md Ali, 19, is a recent madrasah graduate.

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