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IN FOCUS: Beyond diversity quotas and anti-discrimination laws, can Singapore embrace gender equality at the workplace?

With gender inequality among the issues set to be tackled by initiatives laid out in the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development, CNA takes an in-depth look at some of the challenges that women face at work, and the approaches taken by some employers to address them.

IN FOCUS: Beyond diversity quotas and anti-discrimination laws, can Singapore embrace gender equality at the workplace?

Equal pay, equal representation at all levels and parental leave policies will make the most significant difference for women at the workplace, experts said. (Illustration: Rafa Estrada)

SINGAPORE: “You’re good at your job, for a girl.” “Are you planning to have kids soon? So you’ll have to go on maternity leave?” “You should help to plan this, women are more meticulous.” 

Such comments in the workplace from male colleagues are likely to be familiar to many women.

They are for Jean, a 26-year-old software developer. 

At first, her concerns about working in a male-dominated environment were because she thought her male colleagues might be more outspoken, making it harder for her to chime in, or that they might talk down to her. 

Four years after joining the company, she still gets told that she is good at her job for a girl. 

Her colleagues, who are mostly male and slightly older than her, “seem to be impressed” by her work. 

If she were a man, they would not likely not be as impressed, although this could also be because it might be one of the first times they have seen a young female meet their expectations, said Jean (not her real name). 

She acknowledges that her colleagues are being “nice” in trying to commend her work. 

“But if you see it from another perspective, in a way they’re saying that they didn’t expect that you can do so well because you’re a girl,” Jean said. 

“If you just tell me that I’m good, instead of specifying that I’m good for a girl, I think that’s better because it means that you put me on the same level as everyone else. Don’t separate me from the rest of the people and then tell me I’m good because I’m separated from the rest. 

“Despite me knowing that it’s said with good intentions, sometimes it also shows the way they think, that they see you in a different light because of your gender.”

Issues such as this were in the spotlight in Parliament earlier this week during the debate on the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development. Among other workplace issues that were discussed were the difficulties reporting discrimination, or finding a boss that understands women's caregiving responsibilities.

With the release of the White Paper on Mar 28, gender equality in all areas of life is back in the spotlight. It was endorsed by Parliament on Tuesday after an extensive debate about its 25 action plans in five key areas, including equal opportunities in the workplace. 

Singapore has made “significant progress” in providing equal opportunities in the workplace, and the employment rate of women aged 25 to 64 increased from 53 per cent in 1994 to 75 per cent in 2021, the Government said in the White Paper. 

In 2021, 13 per cent of Singapore companies were helmed by a female CEO, and more women have taken on leadership roles. But women still face disadvantages, the White Paper said.

With Parliament’s endorsement, the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices will be enshrined in law. A new set of Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangements will also be introduced by 2024, which will require employers to consider such requests from employees “fairly and properly”.

Steps will also be taken to encourage greater utilisation of parental leave entitlements, the Government said. 

WHAT ARE WOMEN LOOKING FOR?

But what exactly is the standard when it comes to gender equality in the workplace? What do women in Singapore want, and what policies are companies rolling out? 

A gender-inclusive workplace means all employees regardless of gender are entitled to the same opportunities for hiring, career progression, salary and benefits, as well as training and development, said CEO of the Institute for Human Resource Professionals (IHRP) Mayank Parekh. 

“The environment should also provide a safe platform for women that encourages a diversity of expressions to be voiced and heard without fear of reprisals,” he added. 

“​​Gender equality in the workplace is about creating an inclusive culture where all employees feel valued and respected. Equity, not just equality, is the keyword here,” said Ms Elisa Mallis, managing director and APAC vice president of Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). 

“While gender equality focuses on providing equal opportunities, gender equity goes one step further, taking into account historical and social disadvantages that prevent a level playing field. Men and women enter the world of work and advance through their careers with unevenness of advantage, opportunity, privilege, and power.” 

Equal pay, equal representation at all levels and parental leave policies will make the most significant difference for women, she noted. 

Policies to improve gender parity at the workplace are important for women but also for organisations and society to prosper, said Ms Mallis. 

“If we are significantly underutilising half of our talent, of course we are missing out. Men and women bring different strengths and different perspectives to decision-making. Having equal voice and representation in some of the key decisions that impact our collective future leads to better and more balanced outcomes for all.” 

For 24-year-old jobseeker Aishah, who only wanted to be known by her first name, she’s hoping to find a supervisor who is understanding of female issues, and expects to be treated with an equal amount of respect as her male peers. 

“For example, if I’m on my period and I’m having cramps, would you understand and let me take a day off or work from home when I’m in pain? I think it’s easier to approach things like that when there’s a female boss, but when it’s a male boss, most times I don’t feel comfortable to even say it, even though I’m probably in a lot of discomfort and I cannot really function,” she added. 

In her experience during various internships and in part-time roles, she found that male colleagues or superiors took a more top-down approach with female colleagues or were less willing to hear female employees out. 

“I feel that it’s a recurring situation where sometimes male coworkers ... unnecessarily dumb things down for women in the workplace, regardless of specialisation. I don’t know if it’s a seniority thing or they (do it) because they’ve been here longer, but I don’t really appreciate it and sometimes it feels a bit unnecessary,” Aishah said. 

“These are small things that I don’t actively avoid, but when I start working in a place and I see these things, it kind of reminds me ‘Am I being treated differently because I’m a woman?’” 

In terms of policies to encourage gender equality, policies in hiring new employees and policies governing existing employees are both important, said Mr Adrian Tan, spokesperson for the Singapore Human Resources Institute. 

These policies that encourage gender equality have to be introduced “by design”, he added. 

He quoted the example of a female executive who became so frustrated in management meetings at how male colleagues would continue discussions in the toilet, she told them that she would start coming into the male restroom if they continued with this habit so that she could make a contribution to the conversation.

“At the bare minimum” companies should drive awareness on such matters, he said. This could include celebrating diversity and increasing the acknowledgement of efforts of employees of other genders that may not make up the majority of the company, he added. 

EQUALITY IN HIRING AND JOB OPPORTUNITIES

For new mother Mrs Tan, her workplace has “not much gender inequality” and she expects to be treated fairly and equally to her male colleagues in terms of career progression, she told CNA. 

As a new mother, flexible working arrangements and having a boss who understands that she sometimes needs to take urgent leave because of her child are also important to her.  

The 42-year-old banker, who only wanted to be known by her last name, added: “I think for us it’s all about numbers, so it doesn’t matter what gender you are. As long as you have the numbers, you have the results, then pretty much you get your promotion, you get your bonuses and all,” she told CNA. 

There are also women filling positions in higher management, and the ratio of men to women in leadership positions is “a nice number”, she added. 

When she first started out in the industry about 20 years ago, there were few females in management positions, she noted. 

“But as time passes, like now compared to five years ago, there are many, many more. They are placing women in very high, very important positions, which is a very good thing to see,” said Mrs Tan. 

“It makes me feel that women are just as important. We are capable of making big decisions, we are capable of doing big things - unlike my mum’s days, unlike my grandmother’s days, where women were supposed to just stay at home and look after the children. It’s good to see that now women are taking on bigger roles.” 

Office workers are seen at Raffles Place in Singapore on Jan 4, 2022. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Companies CNA spoke to have implemented practices to ensure that the first cut of applicants for a role is diverse, and that employees are judged based on their merits when it comes to being hired or promoted. Some companies have also pledged to increase female representation in top leadership roles. 

At Twitter, at least one woman is on the final selection slate before selecting a candidate for all manager and above roles, said Ms Preet Grewal, its head of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility for Asia Pacific and Japan. 

The company has a target of having at least half of its global workforce be women by 2025, she noted. As of Dec 31 last year, 44.7 per cent were women, an increase of about 2 percentage points from the start of 2021.  

“All hiring managers have to undergo an e-learning module to understand and abide by principles, such as always hiring the most qualified candidate, starting with a candidate pool that reflects our communities, and leading with diversity and inclusion throughout the interview experience,” said Ms Grewal. 

The company’s Consistency and Fairness Taskforce also reviews the promotions process across Twitter and explores measures to disrupt potential bias, she added. 

Creating an environment that empowers female employees to share and leverage their “unique perspectives and experiences for growth” is a priority at Twitter, she added. 

“To make this happen, not only is it important for us to think about gender equity across the whole employee journey, including recruitment, onboarding, pay transparency, and learning and development, but we must also set clear targets to keep us on the right track."

In Singapore, women make up more than 50 per cent of Procter and Gamble’s (P&G) more than 2,000 strong workforce, said Sonali Roychowdhury, its vice president for human resources for Singapore site and product supply, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa region. 

Globally, three out of five of P&G’s sector CEOs and 50 per cent of its board of directors are women, said Ms Roychowdhury.

“We have made great progress, but we know there’s more to do. We are focused on reaching 50-50 at all levels of the company,” she added.

In the 2021 to 2022 financial year, 58 per cent of its new hires were women, noted Ms Roychowdhury. 

“P&G has a develop from within approach, meaning that we typically look to our existing pool of talent for promotion and leadership opportunities, rather than hiring externally at senior levels,” she added.  

“Therefore, it’s very important that we have a strong pipeline of women managers, and this starts with our entry level/university hiring programs.”

Digital marketing agency ADA has introduced an internal referral programme to encourage more women to work at the company. 

“Beyond just wanting the best talents for ADA, we also see this as an opportunity to open the door to more women to work in tech as men still dominate a huge part of the industry today,” said its CEO Srinivas Gattamneni. 

Forty seven per cent of its new hires and 54 per cent of employees who were promoted in 2021 are female, he added. The company also introduced unconscious bias training to eradicate biases, beyond gender stereotypes, last year. 

In recruiting new employees, some companies in the US have turned to anonymous hiring, but this might not always work, said SHRI’s Mr Tan. 

This means that candidates' names, genders, races and so on are not listed when they are assessed for employment, so they are compared based only on their work experience. 

“Imagine you go through this anonymous hiring, but somehow ended up with 100 per cent white male employees. How do you account for diversity then? It’s very hard to prove that you have put in the effort because ultimately people look at the outcomes,” said Mr Tan. 

“So a lot of companies have taken the approach of reverse engineering it, where they will always look for diversity. If it boils down to these two candidates, assuming all things being equal, there may be a tendency to look at the minority candidate, just for looking at minority’s sake.” 

Barriers to women taking on leadership positions take place early in their careers, said IHRP’s Mr Parekh. 

Leaders need to understand all the key components of the business, so companies need to help women early in their careers to develop skills in all areas, he added. 

Women also lose out on overseas stints early in their career because of caregiving responsibilities, he noted. 

“It may not be realistic to completely level the playing field, but women should also be recognised for strong intuition and an ability to take an age-old problem and look at it differently," said Mr Parekh. 

Women leaders will have to be judged on their own performance and merits. 

“It is therefore not tokenism but an opportunity for organisations to tap into women leaders often can be more creative and bring a new perspective. Studies have shown that more gender-diverse Boards of Directors of listed companies tend to have better business outcomes," he added. 

“There are gaps within the current workforce ecosystem, but the good thing is that many companies are starting to pay attention to these issues and are figuring out how to tackle them.

"At the end of the day, companies need to walk the talk and demonstrate their commitment to having a diverse and inclusive workforce that values the contributions of both men and women.”

EQUAL PAY FOR ALL GENDERS 

As a good example of rolling out policies that encourage gender equality, Mr Parekh shared that Standard Chartered released a Gender Pay Gap report last year that outlined the pay differences in their key markets and what they have done to address the issues. 

A survey by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) last year found that women in Singapore are drawing 6 per cent less in terms of salary compared to their male counterparts, he noted.

“This highlighted an ongoing issue the Singapore workforce needs to address. Candidates of similar academic backgrounds and skillsets should have parity in salary, enjoy equal opportunities for career advancement, and be valued equally, regardless of their gender,” said Mr Parekh. 

Mrs Anne Chue, a 49-year-old head of marketing, noted that in her earlier years as a junior employee, it was widely understood that men were paid more because they went through National Service (NS). 

“We were always told that the guys are being paid more even if they start off later than you simply because they went through NS. These were some of the justifications given, the guys will always earn more than you. I still don’t understand this point,” she added. 

This motivated her to work harder to prove herself to get promoted and grow her salary, she shared. 

“But I still don’t get it because it feels like that’s the wrong way of justification. When you’re doing better than them, you really question the logic of why they are paid more than you.” 

On the discrepancy in salary because of NS, Mr Tan noted the effort in acknowledging the contributions of those who serve in the army. 

“But I’m not sure why it has to be done at the company level. It can just be something that the Government subsidises directly, which they’re already doing. Why do companies need to make this distinction?” 

People wearing face masks are seen at the Raffles Place financial business district in Singapore on Sep 14, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Companies told CNA they typically peg salaries to roles and responsibilities, and these are not tied to employees’ gender. 

Every year, Twitter analyses its promotion and pay equity data to ensure employees are paid equitably, said Ms Grewal. In 2021, its female employees earned 100 per cent of equivalent male employees. 

“Salary parity is something we take very seriously at ADA. In our hiring process, we look for the best talent based on merit and do not discriminate when offering a salary,” said Mr Gattamneni. 

“Our main priority when offering a salary is to ensure market competitiveness and internal parity - both of which do not factor in gender.” 

Local caregiving service Homage offers equal pay ranges for roles within the same job scope and performance level, a spokesperson told CNA. 

Sixty per cent of the company is made up of women, with a “nearly equal ratio” of men and women in management positions, and a quarter of the senior management team are women. 

“We can proudly say that we don’t believe in pay gaps between genders, and Homage is committed to equal opportunity and progress across all Homagers,” said the spokesperson. 

“This allows our employees to constantly improve on their skill sets and not view gender as a barrier to career growth.” 

PARENTAL LEAVE AND FLEXIBILITY FOR CAREGIVERS 

Parental leave and flexibility for caregivers at work are priorities for women in Singapore, experts said, with calls to improve caregiver support and paternity leave. 

While it was common to ask potential female candidates whether they were planning to get married and have children 10 to 20 years ago, this practice seems to be less common these days, said Mrs Chue. 

“Because when you’re planning to have a family, they will think twice because you’re going to go on maternity leave,” she added. 

Mrs Chue is now a mother to a 17-year-old and 18-year-old. She was “quite new” to the company when she found out that she was pregnant with her second child. 

Since her children are a year apart, she went on maternity leave twice in two years. 

“Nobody in the company or my bosses said anything, but I felt bad myself - that I had to be away for so long because I was pregnant. Because I felt like, in those days, how can you be on maternity leave two years in a row?” she added, acknowledging that her mindset then was different from now. 

“I had to ask my boss out for lunch and announce that I’m pregnant again. I was like ‘I’m so sorry, I actually feel bad that I’m pregnant again’,” she recounted with a chuckle. 

“My bosses were happy for me, but my colleagues must be thinking they would have to take over my projects.” 

For Mrs Tan, who gave birth about six months ago, her immediate boss, who is male, has been understanding about her maternity or urgent leave needs. Other higher-ups who are female have also been understanding about her situation, she shared. 

Earlier this year, when Singapore saw more than 10,000 COVID-19 cases each day, she expressed her concerns to her boss about returning to the office because of her very young child at home. 

“He understood and told me to just work from home for the time being. When the COVID-19 cases come down and when I’m ready I can just go back to the office,” she said, adding that she is still working from home now. 

Most companies CNA spoke to have provided flexible working arrangements to all employees, including parents, and some have gone beyond Singapore’s parental leave requirements, with some providing the same amount of leave to new fathers and new mothers. 

In Singapore, working mothers are eligible for 16 weeks of paid maternity leave while fathers are entitled to two weeks of paid paternity leave, as mandated by MOM. 

Swedish automation technology company ABB has doubled its paternity leave offer in Singapore, and rolled out a global parental leave programme this year, said its Singapore country managing director Jerrica Chooi. 

The company’s new parental leave program is gender neutral, so a parent can take 12 weeks of paid leave if they are the primary caregiver, and this applies to all employees who have a baby or adopt a child, she added. 

The company has also just started reviewing its benefits system to make it more inclusive, Ms Chooi said, noting that differentiation by employee characteristics may indirectly discriminate against some groups. 

“In general, men tend to take fewer days off so we want the dads in our company to know that we will support their family needs and it’s okay to be away on paternity leave,” she added. 

“We do not have enough data to measure the effectiveness of these programs yet but we have already received positive feedback from new parents who have taken advantage of these new policies.” 

Twitter introduced more family benefits in January this year, including personalised and financial support to employees in navigating starting a family, said Ms Grewal. 

This includes financial support for egg freezing, fertility, surrogacy and adoption, as well as coaching during family planning, pregnancy and parenthood, she added. 

Employees at Dropbox who welcome a new child get 24 weeks of fully paid parental leave regardless of gender or whether they adopt, said its APAC head Pia Broadley. 

“We encourage returning parents to work with their managers and colleagues to develop a schedule that works best for them according to their current situation, with flexible options of remote and hybrid ways of working available when necessary,” she added. 

Women in Singapore take on a disproportionate share of domestic and caregiving work, making up 60 per cent of caregivers here, said CCL’s Ms Mallis. 

“Shouldering a heavier burden at home often means that women are more likely to burnout, which can ultimately affect their opportunities for career growth,” she added. 

“To truly champion gender equity, leaders will need to address the unique challenges that men and women face by offering flexible work arrangements, ensuring that fathers feel empowered to take time off for their family, and providing mentoring and sponsorship to women for their career advancements.” 

Parental leave policies will also fall flat if employees, regardless of gender, do not feel safe to utilise them because they are concerned about the social penalties of doing so, said Ms Mallis. 

These policies should therefore be accompanied by efforts to ensure that employees feel safe at the workplace, she added. 

“Psychological safety is about having trust in your leaders and your team; a shared belief that your team will not reject or embarrass you for speaking up.” 

An elderly woman with her caregiver. (File Photo: CNA/Calvin Oh)

Ms Suhaila Zainal Shah, who conducted a study of 41 working mothers as part of her PhD research at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said about one quarter of them felt that the current amount of paid parental leave was insufficient. 

For instance, with each parent receiving only six days of paid childcare leave in a year, many mothers were forced to take unpaid leave to care for their sick children who needed to self-isolate at home, she noted. 

Mothers with more than one child face extra caregiving duties, but are not entitled to additional paid childcare leave, she added. 

There is also a lack of standardisation of leave policies across different industries, said Ms Suhaila, noting that while there are standardised best practices, they have yet to be legislated and enforced. 

“As a result, some mothers, such as those working in the private sector, found themselves at the short end of the stick, having to use some of their annual leave to attend to their elder parents’ and children’s medical or health needs and emergencies.” 

Providing sufficient and standardised paid leave for parents and caregivers can play an important role in levelling the playing field, so that workers of “diverse personal and professional profiles” can have adequate time to meet their family’s needs without sacrificing their annual leave, she added. 

PROTECTING THOSE WHO REPORT DISCRIMINATION 

As part of the White Paper, the Tripartite Committee on Fair Workplace Practices will look at new proposals to allow people to report workplace discrimination. 

This means that the law will protect the confidentiality of those who come forward and protect them from retaliation, and require workplaces to put in place grievance handling processes. 

Women and experts CNA spoke to welcomed the move, but were hesitant about its implementation. 

“Even in the past places where I’ve worked at where they do have this in the system, I don’t really see anyone actually using them. Or the few instances where people use them, I don’t really know what the outcome is or what’s the follow up,” said 24-year-old Aishah. 

“They always talk about these things but implementation looks very different, so it’s very hard to say or be hopeful. Will I really be protected? There’s always the fear that if something happens to me and I actually report, then I will lose my job or I will be treated differently.” 

However, companies now are also more progressive and open to implementing such policies that encourage gender equality at large, said Aishah, describing it as “a perk of being younger”. 

“Or maybe it’s that the people my age are more willing to fight for these things and call them out if they see a need,” she added. 

At the end of the day, encouraging gender inclusivity and equality at the workplace also benefits businesses and society at large, experts said. 

“Cultivating a diversity-inclusive workplace goes beyond the black and white policies. Everyone in the company can do their part by eliminating unconscious bias and stereotyping,” said IHRP’s Mr Parekh. 

“How effective this will be will depend on whether each one of us, men, and women, recognise these bad employment practices against women and commit to making tangible action for change in our own small way.” 

This could include being available where female colleagues need help and supporting all team members with work that is both flexible and meaningful, or committing to build a gender-balanced team and act against micro-aggressions at the workplace, he added. 

Gender equality policies are key to helping organisations attract, retain and nurture top talent, said Ms Mallis. 

“In today’s climate, where businesses are caught between the Great Resignation and a talent shortage, we cannot afford to overlook half of Singapore’s human capital,” she added, noting that multiple studies have shown that diversity drives a better bottom line. 

“Companies that fully see, appreciate, and engage all their talent will gain from the fresh insights and perspectives that would otherwise be missed. Diverse teams bring with them innovation, resilience, and ultimately better business performance,” said CCL’s Ms Mallis. 

“One often overlooked yet highly important benefit of diversity policies is the way in which they transform how the organisation views gender norms.” 

Good policies challenge employees of all genders to rethink their assumptions and biases, she added. 

“Demystifying what makes a good leader is critical because successful leadership today requires both masculine and feminine qualities. For instance, leaders may need to pivot between assertiveness and empathy based on the situation,” said Ms Mallis. 

“Empowering both male and female leaders to lean into their strengths and understand potential pitfalls will future-proof organisations as they navigate an increasingly complex landscape.” 

Source: CNA/hw
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