Bridg­ing the Gap

Ev­ery­one must do their part of achiev­ing and main­tain­ing gen­der par­ity in the work­place

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There’s still a lot to be done. Ac­cord­ing to the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum ‘Global Gen­der Gap Re­port 2017’, the dis­par­ity be­tween men and women across the globe stands at 32 per cent – that’s how far away we are from achiev­ing uni­ver­sal gen­der par­ity. The ar­eas cov­ered by the re­port in­clude health out­comes, ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment, eco­nomic par­tic­i­pa­tion, and po­lit­i­cal em­pow­er­ment. But even with­out ref­er­ence to sta­tis­ti­cal cal­cu­la­tions, we still wit­ness un­fair treat­ment of women es­pe­cially in the work­place in ar­eas such as pay gap for the same type of work, ac­cess to op­por­tu­ni­ties for ad­vance­ment and pro­mo­tion, and de­cent treat­ment.

Port­fo­lio con­vened a round­table to com­pare and dis­cuss ex­pe­ri­ences of dis­par­ity be­tween gen­ders – as well as achieve­ment in bet­ter treat­ment of women – in lo­cal work­places.


Ong: There is a study that says, in 2006-2016, women in the la­bor force has in­creased from 42.5 to 45.8per cent. The same up­ward trend has been ob­served in the past few years.

Ng-Foo: Ac­cord­ing to WEF Global Gen­der Gap 2017, Sin­ga­pore slipped 10 po­si­tions to be ranked 65th out of 144. Eco­nomic par­tic­i­pa­tion and po­lit­i­cal em­pow­er­ment were the two ar­eas where we scored low. Women take up 59 per cent of lower level jobs, and 37 per­cent of man­age­rial po­si­tions. This has an im­pact on the kind of pay they take home.

Warrell: Par­tic­i­pa­tion in the work­force is in­ter­est­ing, another one is what is called the ‘leaky pipeline’. As you move up the ranks into more se­nior roles, even in in­dus­tries where you have strong women par­tic­i­pa­tion, of­ten in hos­pi­tal­ity but also in health, those in the more se­nior lev­els tend to be male. Why do so few women move up to more se­nior roles?


An­der­son: It’s eas­ier for peo­ple who are far along in their ca­reer to take a hard line and not ac­cept some­thing, but if you’re in your 20s and you’ve got your dream job and you’re with some­one who’s older and who is be­hav­ing very poorly, what do you do? Do you ac­tu­ally stand up and put your job at risk? We iden­tify what is not okay. You don’t have to stand up and risk your job all the time, but when you see some­thing wrong, don’t con­done it, don’t par­tic­i­pate in it, and try to be away from such sit­u­a­tions in the fu­ture.

We’re not there (at He For She) to fix it for women, but we want to fix men and the next gen­er­a­tion of men by show­ing them what is ac­cept­able be­hav­ior in the work­place.


I’ve been fol­low­ing the #Me­Too move­ment since last year, which is like a global reck­on­ing against ha­rass­ment, but there is also a re­search from Lean In that shows many men are be­com­ing

un­com­fort­able about work­ing with women in a room, and men­tor­ing women. So, the un­in­tended back­lash of the #Me­Too is that men who can be great cham­pi­ons of women, many are quite ner­vous (work­ing closely with women) be­cause there’s a risk to that.

Tan: In some ways I feel that get­ting in the or­ga­ni­za­tional pro­fes­sional cul­ture level is al­most too late. It’s great that we are do­ing this, but it’s too late. I per­son­ally feel that moth­ers have the great­est chance to mak­ing the dif­fer­ence by rais­ing their sons prop­erly.


Tan: We were talk­ing about why there is a drop in the par­tic­i­pa­tion of women in the work­place. It tends to be when women are in their 30s, around the time that they give birth. It im­pacts the ca­reer of women. In­ter­est­ing ques­tion is why they do not come back to work af­ter. The ex­tra job scope that a woman car­ries with her gets brushed un­der the car­pet. A lot of it the dis­com­fort in the sit­u­a­tion be­cause the roles have changed. Women now have to man­age the house­hold and do well at work at the same time.

Ng-Foo: Some women want to re­turn to work, but they don’t want to work full time. Some­times it be­comes an all-or-noth­ing sit­u­a­tion where they must do over­time work to cope with the demands of the work­place.

Can em­ploy­ers step up and say men and women are both valu­able tal­ents in the work­force, but how do we retain and en­gage with women who are in this life stage – it is not per­ma­nent – but how can we be more flex­i­ble in dif­fer­ent ways? Com­pressed work­week, re­duced hours of part-time ar­range­ment, telecom­mut­ing, flex­itime, job shar­ing – all th­ese schemes are scary for em­ploy­ers to im­ple­ment. The team doesn’t like it, the boss doesn’t like it – I can’t get hold of this per­son, where are they? – th­ese come up so there’s a lot of back­lash against al­ter­na­tive work­ing ar­range­ments be­cause they’re not con­sid­ered as the norm.

I think moth­ers have to push for change and be the change­mak­ers. Em­ploy­ers also have to say we want to do this so we can make it hap­pen.

Ong: We have en­coun­tered this among fe­male col­leagues. Some of them don’t want to go back to work so we have to set up flex­i­ble hours. We’re also ex­plor­ing whether some jobs can be done from home. We’re look­ing at, for ex­am­ple, din­ing reser­va­tion, which is tech­nol­ogy based, being done at home so women can do them while at­tend­ing to other chores at home. This is not a high-level po­si­tion, but at least it can keep women (par­tic­i­pat­ing) in the work­force. We have a big pool of stay-home moth­ers who can’t go back to work be­cause of lack of sup­port in look­ing af­ter the chil­dren. In hos­pi­tal­ity we have work­ing week­ends and shift works so it’s very dif­fi­cult for them to come back.

Chua: I had an em­ployee who was about to take a ma­ter­nity leave for four months. In a small startup, you can do a lot of things in four months. It was a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion for me, es­pe­cially as a woman – should I re­place her or should I wait for her to come back? In the end she de­cided not to work af­ter giv­ing birth. But I feel there should be some sup­port for us (em­ploy­ers).

Sin­ga­pore is one of the coun­tries with the best ben­e­fits for women who have given birth.


Ong: The hos­pi­tal­ity work­force is shrink­ing, but we’re not able to hire more for­eign­ers, so we have to think of cre­ative ways of engaging the work­force. One of which is engaging ‘stay at home moth­ers’. We are now look­ing into the tech­nol­ogy – how we can im­ple­ment this. We might tie up with NTUC and dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment sec­tors to say that we are now open­ing up th­ese options. Be­cause it’s tech­nol­ogy, women can do the job in their own homes.

Warrell: Tech­nol­ogy is open­ing up op­por­tu­ni­ties for women em­pow­er­ment and eco­nomic par­tic­i­pa­tion. The abil­ity to run

a home-based busi­ness off your web­site, for ex­am­ple. Women en­trepreneurs, solo­preneurs – there are so many ways that women can be em­ployed other than show­ing up in the of­fice ev­ery day. We didn’t have that 20 years ago.

An­der­son: The next gen­er­a­tion com­ing through is flip­ping jobs ev­ery two to three years; get­ting tal­ents is im­pos­si­ble right now. It’s dif­fi­cult to find peo­ple who can fill up the po­si­tions. Em­ploy­ers will be smart to en­gage women be­fore they go on ma­ter­nity leave and ask them, what do you plan to do? It must be done in ad­vance be­cause re­plac­ing that head count is a night­mare.

Abdullahsani: I run my own busi­ness by my­self, so I can say that 100 per cent of my work­force is women. (Laugh­ter from the group.) But oc­ca­sion­ally I hire peo­ple for spe­cific projects or to do spe­cific jobs. I may not be aware of it, but I tend to hire women. My pub­li­cist is a woman, so is my web de­signer. I just like work­ing with women.

Chua: Thirty per cent of our work­force is fe­male. We don’t have a fixed quota. Some com­pa­nies have a fixed gen­der quota. For me fem­i­nism is where women are given equal op­por­tu­ni­ties as the men – not more, not less. There­fore, hav­ing a fixed quota can have back­lash ef­fect.

I have ex­pe­ri­enced this when I was work­ing for a for­eign in­vest­ment bank. Some­times women are being pro­moted based on gen­der and not merit and it has neg­a­tive ef­fect on the en­tire sys­tem.

Warrell: Not only can it be per­ceived as to­kenism, but par­tic­u­larly when you get to the se­nior ranks, and women who don’t have

op­er­a­tional ex­pe­ri­ence they are fun­neled into non-op­er­a­tional roles such as HR and mar­ket­ing. Sud­denly, if you say we have to put this num­ber of women on the board or in the C-suite, if they don’t have the skills and sup­port, they fail and peo­ple say I told you so. Quo­tas are a very pre­car­i­ous path.

Kua: If we are just talk­ing about a sci­en­tific num­ber, a pro­por­tion of peo­ple that have to be fe­male, try­ing to treat peo­ple equally – which is a word that has come up a lot in our dis­cus­sion – it might be dif­fi­cult to ar­rive at the right so­lu­tion to have more women in the right po­si­tion. It may not be so sci­en­tific, it may not be about treat­ing peo­ple equally, but rather treat­ing peo­ple fairly.


Tan: Some of us were born in the time when women are sup­posed to have it all. But that is not pos­si­ble. It’s im­por­tant for women to ac­knowl­edge that it is okay to not have it all. And there should be a sup­port from the com­mu­nity. Be hon­est about what is achiev­able.

When you re­turn to the work­place, do you ask for par­ity in pay, and where do you get that con­fi­dence to say that you de­serve equal pay if you’re al­ready feel­ing in­ad­e­quate be­cause you can’t man­age the do­mes­tic front? And you don’t know if you’re as good (as the men) in the pro­fes­sional front.

Kua: It may be use­ful to fol­low the sto­ries of some of th­ese women who have made it to the board of di­rec­tors or to the C-suite. We know that there are a few of them in Sin­ga­pore who have achieved th­ese cov­eted po­si­tions. We know what the prob­lem is – the pre­dom­i­nance of men in th­ese po­si­tions, but we don’t re­ally know the solutions. If we fol­low the sto­ries of th­ese women, we might un­der­stand the com­bi­na­tions of fac­tors that pushed them to th­ese roles. Just re­mov­ing the bi­ases that have stopped (a woman) from get­ting to that po­si­tion might be a good step for­ward, whereas try­ing to treat peo­ple equally – we can’t be equal be­cause we’re not the same. Men and women are not the same, you can play the same role in the of­fice but you don’t know what is hap­pen­ing at home.

Many ge­netic, med­i­cal, phys­i­cal, phys­i­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences that make us just dif­fer­ent. In our ef­fort to treat men and women equally at work, some­times we may be work­ing against the nat­u­ral or­der of things.

I un­der­stand why the quo­tas are there – to sup­port women and demon­strate that they can han­dle po­si­tions of lead­er­ship. But some days there might be a bumper crop of great women, so their rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the board may go up to 80 per cent, but some­times it may just be 20 per cent.

Top row: Charles An­der­son, Su-Lyn Tan, Dr. Jade Kua, Khai Lin Chua, Marc Al­ma­gro Bot­tom row: Jo­ce­lyn Ng-Foo, Ong Eng Hwee, Margie Warrell, and Amelia Abdullahsani

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