Progress made in women’s development but more can be done to tackle gender gaps: Lawrence Wong
Speaking at the annual conference for the People’s Action Party (PAP) Women’s Wing, the Deputy Prime Minister pointed to gender stereotypes as one major challenge.
SINGAPORE: While Singapore has achieved progress in women’s development, “persistent and insidious” gender gaps still exist in society and there remains “much scope for improvement”, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said on Saturday (Sep 10).
Noting that women now get equal education opportunities as men and are taking up leadership roles in both the public and private sectors, he said: “We have made progress and we should be proud of the progress we have made, but we should also recognise that the situation is not perfect.”
Speaking at the annual conference for the People’s Action Party (PAP) Women’s Wing, Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister, pointed to gender stereotypes as one major challenge.
“There are, of course, differences between men and women. It’s deeply rooted in human nature and human physiology, and we see these differences expressed in almost every area of life,” he said.
“These differences should be affirmed and celebrated … But sometimes, the differences can lead to unhelpful stereotypes and labels, especially when they are reinforced by cultural and popular media.”
He noted how stereotypes entrench certain mindsets about women and how they are judged, such as women being seen as less inclined to take risks and hence not being able to be effective leaders. They also risk forming self-fulfilling prophecies that inhibit and dissuade women from making their voices heard or making career choices they are entitled to.
Beyond work, the stereotype of women being inherently more nurturing than men due to maternal instincts “can be unhelpful if taken to an extreme”, Mr Wong added.
“Because the man will say ‘There you go, you’re so good at it. So in the interest of division of labor, why not you spend more time caring for the children and families, while I focus on my career?’
“That's completely unhelpful because … caregiving roles should not be a domain only for women. Men can and must do our part too,” he said at the conference attended by the ruling party’s Members of Parliament, representatives of the social service sector and activists.
Mr Wong also brought up the risk of the Internet and social media reinforcing gender stereotypes.
For example, young girls now are at risk of being pressurised to look a certain way in order to get more likes on social media. Meanwhile, sexualised images of women online can easily influence the attitudes and mindsets of young boys.
“Social media turbocharges these stereotypes and we know that these stereotypes are often the precursor to more extreme sexist attitudes, even hate speech or worse - bullying, harassment, and even sexual abuse and violence,” he said.
That is why Singapore must continue to step up efforts in this area, be it education in school against stereotypes, safeguards for women against violence, online harm and discrimination at the workplace, to improving the broader infrastructure and ecosystem for childcare and senior care.
Employers must also do their part to provide more flexible work arrangements, the minister said.
“Ultimately, we must try to shape more progressive family norms to encourage more shared parental responsibilities and a more balanced sharing of family caregiving responsibilities.
“And if we can do all that, then I’m sure we can see more women thrive, excel and advance in leadership roles, in both the public and private sectors, and they will do so on their own merit, not through some special scheme or treatment because you do not need them.”
All this means that Singapore’s work of advancing women’s development is “never finished”.
“We must keep at it and we must continue to push the agenda along,” said Mr Wong. “Because the bottom line is that Singapore women are equally capable as men and we will give you equal opportunities to prove yourself and reach your fullest potential.”
Mr Wong pointed to the Forward Singapore initiative – launched in June by the ruling party’s fourth-generation or 4G leadership team – as one way of doing so.
“Through this exercise, we hope we can come together to imagine the kind of society we want for our children and our grandchildren. A society where men and women can stand as equals, where we recognise the intrinsic value of women in Singapore, and where every citizen is empowered to fulfill their aspirations and dreams.”
Following his speech, Mr Wong joined Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo and Member of Parliament Carrie Tan (PAP-Nee Soon) in a dialogue session, where they discussed issues such as paternity leave and women in leadership roles.
Speaking to reporters after the conference, Mrs Teo echoed that gender stereotypes remain an obstacle in achieving a fairer and more inclusive society, with one being norms and expectations for women to be primary caregivers.
“Although this has changed a great deal in Singapore where we see many more men … stepping up to be part of caregiving in their families, I think this is the progress but you can always do more to encourage this to continue.”
Earlier in her opening speech, Mrs Teo, who chairs the PAP Women’s Wing, described caregiving as “both hard work and ‘heart’ work”.
“Although much has been done, women’s development really is a journey without end. A big part of our effort must be focused on our caregivers,” she added.
At the moment, the Government helps in various ways, such as enhancing access to affordable and quality childcare and expanding grants to relieve the financial strain of caregivers.
“But we all know how demanding caregiving is and how much more a community of support is needed. This is why we talk about growing our ‘Circles of Care’," the minister said, while citing efforts by the ruling party such as organising and delivering care services, and advocating for caregivers and women.