Speech by Minister Indranee Rajah at the NUHS WISH Webinar - Women in the Workplace: Creating a More Equitable Future on 11 Nov 2020
“RETHINKING NORMS FOR WOMEN IN SINGAPORE”
Thank you Professor Yeoh and NUHS “Women in Science and Healthcare” (WISH) group for inviting me to this webinar, and thank you all for making time to join us today.
It has been a challenging year for everyone, and especially for healthcare professionals like yourselves, who are at the frontlines of our battle against Covid-19. In your various roles whether it is doctors, nurses, Allied Health Professionals or other roles, you have through your dedication, professionalism and sacrifices helped keep us safe. So to all of you – a big thank you!
Covid-19 has upended many things, including the way we think about work, and how work and life can be organised. It has forced a global pause. It’s forced us to reflect and rethink many assumptions. But at the same time, this presents a unique opportunity to re-shape norms as we know them, and ask ourselves what can and should we do differently, and how do we go about it. One of these areas which bear rethinking are norms for women in Singapore.
We have since independence always espoused the cause of women. After forming the Government in 1959, one of the first things the PAP Government did was to legislate the Women’s Charter, and that was a huge step for its time. Since then we have over the years put in place many policies advancing the interests of women and passed many laws that directly or indirectly protect women – the most recent including the amendments to the Penal Code and the Protection Against Harassment Act.
We have also made strides in leadership positions. Between 1970 – 1984 we had no women Members of Parliament at all! In 1984 we had 3. When I entered Parliament after the 2001 General Elections, we had 10 elected female MPs in Parliament but no female full Ministers. Today, 19 years on, we have 27 elected female MPs, with three who are full Ministers and several Senior Ministers of State and Ministers of State. Likewise, there has been similar progress in the representation of women in senior leadership positions – from holding 7.5 per cent of board seats in Singapore’s top 100-listed companies in 2013, to 16.2 per cent in December 2019.
However as Prof Yeoh has said, there is always room to do better. A key factor in this will be to challenge and rethink existing gender norms, be it in the home, at the workplace, or the wider society.
RETHINKING NORMS IN THE HOME
So let’s think about how we can rethink norms in the home. Women have multi-faceted roles. We are daughters, wives, mothers, and in some cases grandmothers. Women who pursue careers are also generally still the main caregiver to their children, and increasingly for our ageing parents. All this, while being responsible for the domestic duties at home.
During the Circuit Breaker period, many mothers had to grapple with keeping the house in order, while juggling work, child care, and home-based learning.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that men and fathers don’t help out at all. There are many men who play a more active role in these areas and I do see more and more young fathers involved in raising their children and spending time with them. However, it is fair to say that in general women still do carry a disproportionately heavier load of family responsibilities.
And this is one of the norms that should change. We should move quickly to a society where the norm is one of more equal sharing of parenting and domestic responsibilities in all households.
There are positive signs that things are trending that way – men today participate more than the previous generations in raising and caring for their children. The Dads For Life movement that was started in 2009, and driven by the Centre For Fathering, does wonderful work in encouraging this mindset change. We need more such ground-up efforts, to continue to encourage fathers to play a more active role. International studies have shown that children with more involved fathers have better physical, cognitive and emotional developmental outcomes. Greater paternal involvement in child-raising also helps mothers to stay active in the workforce.
On our part, the Government has also improved our parental leave schemes over the years, to encourage shared parenting, and to enable fathers to play a bigger role in raising their children. In 2017, we made it mandatory for employers to provide the second week of Paternity Leave, and extended the duration of Shared Parental Leave from one to four weeks. Child Care and Infant Care Leave provisions are also extended equally to working fathers and mothers.
RETHINKING NORMS AT THE WORKPLACE
But it is not enough to change the norms at home. We need to change the norms in the workplace too. We need more progressive workplace practices, and supportive employers and co-workers. The proverbial glass ceiling that may exist for women in some industries, also needs to be broken.
Flexible Work Arrangements
First, family-friendly workplace practices are key. Other than having understanding bosses and colleagues, being able to have flexible work arrangements help many workers to better juggle their responsibilities at work and at home. Many enlightened employers have introduced flexible work arrangements. In fact, NUHS is one such employer. Despite having a large proportion of jobs which require in-person interaction with patients, you have put in place measures such as staggered working hours, part-time arrangements and teleworking, to help employees achieve better work-life harmony. I understand that these practices stem from a belief at NUHS that having work-life harmony can reduce stress levels while improving productivity. This also mirrors the practices put in place across our other healthcare institutions. This is a fundamental rethink about the relationship between working hours and productivity that I think more organisations should have.
These are all encouraging signs of such a mindset shift. Today, 85 per cent of companies hiring 92 per cent of the workforce offer some form of Flexible Work Arrangements or FWAs. This follows from the Tripartite Standards for FWAs and for Unpaid Leave for Unexpected Care Needs that were introduced in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Compared to 2019, we saw a three-fold increase in the adoption of both Tripartite Standards this year. The silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic, is that it has helped both employers and employees see that working from home and flexible work arrangements are possible without detriment to the organisation.
The Government will continue to work with employers, and to study ways to increase the adoption and use of FWAs across workplaces. I hope that this will in time, help more women and men better achieve work-life harmony, and complement changes in gender norms in the home.
Women in Male-Dominated Domains
Next, Women in male-dominated domains. It is encouraging that there is a steady increase in the labour force participation rate for women in Singapore. Around 61 per cent of women are employed in the workforce today, an increase from the 55 per cent and 50 per cent just one and two decades ago previously. Efforts have been made to promote jobs in traditionally male-dominated STEM and cybersecurity industries to women. Agencies like the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore are making a concerted push for good jobs in the cybersecurity industry for women, as recently highlighted in the “Women In Cyber” event. MOE’s deliberate efforts to give both genders exposure to STEM-related opportunities in recent years have paid off – 37 per cent of female students, above OECD’s average of 32 per cent, expect to work in STEM in Singapore today.
We also need to identify and nurture more female leaders. There has been some progress in this regard. In 2019, women represented 16.2 per cent of the boards of the top 100 SGX-listed companies, as compared to 7.5 per cent in 2013. The Council for Board Diversity will continue to look into increasing women’s representation on boards not just in the Private sector, but in the People and Public sector as well. So we must press on with these efforts, while still adhering to assessment on the basis of merit.
RETHINKING NORMS WITHIN SOCIETY
Next, to create a more equitable future, societal norms are key.
Minds are shaped from a very young age, and to break gender stereotypes in society, we will have to start with our children early on. Girls and boys have equal access to the range of learning opportunities offered by schools. For instance, we introduced computational thinking and compulsory coding classes for both boys and girls in the upper primary levels, with the aim to equip all our young with such digital capabilities. In lower secondary levels, both boys and girls also take food and consumer education and design and technology classes. So gone are the days when boys took technical science and girls took home econs! In fact, I understand that the proportion of male students in NUS Nursing has increased over time as well.
We must also be mindful that our societal norms must evolve with societal changes. Jokes, comments and attitudes that may have been acceptable decades ago may no longer be acceptable today. While the Internet has connected everyone, it has also enabled harassment, and cyber-bullying, and often times women are at the receiving end. We must be a society that acts with genuine and sincere mutual respect and courtesy between genders, without losing our sense of humour or being paralysed by political correctness.
Minister for Law and Home Affairs, Mr K Shanmugam had earlier announced a taskforce on women’s issues. We are starting a series of conversations focused on women-related issues to better support women in Singapore.
This is supported by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), the conversations will allow us to better understand Singaporeans’ aspirations for our women, and the mindset changes required to help find their fullest potential. I encourage you to participate in these.
This would pave the way for women’s development and hopefully cultivate a better and more inclusive society for all.
Insights and feedback from the conversations will feed into a White Paper to be delivered in Parliament next year.
One of the key priorities in my new portfolio under the National Population and Talent Division at the Prime Minister’s Office is to improve the support for Singaporeans in their marriage and parenthood journey.
A key aspect of this support is to develop good quality infant and child care, that is affordable and accessible. This would help mothers to return to work, and enjoy a peace of mind that their children are well cared for.
Wider societal support and a culture that celebrates families, are also important in enabling women to pursue their career goals while raising their families. In June this year, we launched the “Made For Families” initiative, to encourage more businesses and community groups to play a part in fostering a family-friendly ecosystem, and more conducive and joyful pro-family workplaces. To-date, more than 60 companies have expressed their interest to participate. We hope that more can join us and play a part, so that we can better support families as a Singapore society.
I firmly believe that it is our collective responsibility and interest to create an equitable future for both women and men in Singapore. We can start by challenging long-held assumptions, and rethinking traditional gender norms.
Thank you once again for the invitation and the opportunity to share my thoughts. I look forward to a fruitful panel discussion and hearing your views on this topic.