Women in the workplace: The Singapore way

[ORIGINAL ARTICLE: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34864993]

Publication Date: 19 Nov 2015

Author: Karishma Vaswani

Impeccably dressed and coiffed, she is one of Singapore’s success stories, having started her career in banking more than two decades ago.

She now runs the wealth management and consumer banking team at DBS, one of Singapore’s most valuable firms.

But she admits she couldn’t do this without help.

“When I got pregnant I moved very close to my parents,” she told me. “They were literally a stone’s throw away so they were always there for me or my children.

“I also had a [domestic] helper, which is possible in Singapore because it’s relatively affordable, and I had very supportive bosses at work who allowed me to juggle my time and my flexibility.”

Ms Tan is one of a small but powerful group of women helping to run some of the biggest companies in Singapore.

At telecom giant Singtel, female employees make up one third of the senior management positions – including the group chief executive, and investment, technology and operating heads.

Over the last decade Singapore has outperformed its Asian peers in closing the gender workplace and pay gap – but still very few women end up joining what is essentially a men’s club in the business world here.

When it comes to gender equality in the workplace, the city-state still has a long way to go.

  • Over the last 10 years Singapore has seen the number of women in the workforce jump by 15%, according to the World Economic Forum.
  • Women make up 15% of chief executives in Singapore: the highest in Asia and third highest in the world, according to Credit Suisse.
  • But women in Singapore still lag behind many of their Asian counterparts in some areas, especially in terms of female participation on management boards.
  • Women make up just over 8% of boards in Singapore.
  • On average women are paid at least 10% less than men for doing the same job in most sectors, according to a study from the Ministry of Manpower.

Women being held back

Experts say women are still being held back because the corporate culture in Singapore penalises them if they decide to spend a few years out of the workforce.

“Some women do take time off for their own family issues and then the companies would say – oh you took two years off so you’re not getting as much exposure as the man who didn’t take the time off,” says Prof Annie Koh of Singapore Management University (SMU), who has been working on the issue of gender equality for years.

As a mother of two herself, she says women often feel they deserve less than men, because of their family commitments.

“Women aren’t good at asking. We keep telling ourselves that our bosses will tell us when we deserve more, that perhaps because we came back after giving birth we shouldn’t be paid as much as men,” she says.

“Women shouldn’t be penalised for stepping out of the workforce.”

Work-life balance

Singapore regularly ranks as one of Asia’s worst countries in terms of work life balance, and experts say that’s why it’s suffering from a declining birth rate.

“Some women end up having the ‘either/or’ mentality”, Prof Koh said, “choosing either the life of a professional or the life of a mother”.

“But it doesn’t have to be like that. The government is encouraging companies to bring women into the workforce, because it’s good for business, and for the economy.”

But by some accounts, the workplace is only getting more competitive in an already highly stressful Singapore.

Vithiya Gajandran is a 24 year-old postgraduate student. Ambitious and keen to succeed, she is the epitome of the Singaporean millennial.

But while she does plan to have a family some day, she says it’s much harder to have kids and a career in Singapore now than it used to be.

“I remember how my mum would go to work and look after us and she was always able to do both” she said as we sat in her lecture theatre waiting for class to begin.

“I don’t think it’s so easy to do these days. It’s getting more competitive, bosses are requiring more of you and want you to produce more, you are required to put in extra hours, its no longer the 9 to 5 workplace. It’s definitely getting tougher.”

As a nation, Singapore has always depended on its highly educated workforce to get ahead and stay competitive.

And increasingly women here are setting their sights on success – but many are still struggling to find the right balance between work and family.

Article Summary:

  1. Singapore is doing fairly well in terms of gender equality in the workplace. Many women hold influential positions in major companies. However, we are still lagging behind in terms of the number of women on management boards. Also, women are still earning lesser than men, when doing the same job.
  2. This persistent gap is largely due to certain cultural norms in Singapore. Women are essentially ‘penalised’ for choosing to take time off work. This therefore sabotages the opportunities they can get, and their ability to climb the corporate ladder.
  3. This has thus evolved into a “either/or situation” for Singaporean women. Because work-life balance is quite bad in Singapore. This is directly contributing to the falling birth rate, as more empowered women are choosing careers over families in their early years.



  • This conundrum of family versus career is not exclusive to Singapore. Working women all over the world face this problem. This thus alludes to a greater problem in society. The fact that we have created this ‘either/or’ dichotomy is hurting women. Yes, one can say that our society does not discriminate, our society provides opportunities to women, our society does not limit the potential of women. However, if society is still forcing women (and men) to make the choice between their career and family we are not achieving equality. Why? Because, women are especially pressured to take on domestic roles as according to traditional gender roles (Asian and Western alike). Essentially, ambition and the ‘Empowered Strong Independent Woman’ narrative pressures women to further their careers, but the expectation that a woman’s greatest role is as a mother, also pressure them to stay within the home. These contradicting narratives, thus force women into a limbo– you simply cannot have one without the other– if so women aren’t exactly getting more choices.
  • It is also important to consider how this dichotomy hurts men. Men are also forced to choose between family and career. And with the increasingly vocal feminist movement, condemning the lack of involvement of men in the home, they are being backed into a corner as well. Because, there is still a pervasive narrative that men who choose to stay at home more are considered “wimpy” or “weak” or “effeminate”. Being feminine is taboo to men who are expected to embody all this macho. But, what this does is that it causes social/gender norms to persist. Men are still expected to be the breadwinner, lest they wanna be viewed as inferior by their peers. This is does not help achieve gender equality, and in fact has shown to cause detrimental levels of stress among working male adults.
  • So at the end of the day, society should aim to achieve two things. One, destigmatize femininity for men, so that more will be encouraged to take on more active roles in the home, thus lessening the burden on women. And two, begin to judge people purely based on their skills, and not assume that their abilities are intrinsically tied to their experience. This is a fairer judgement (particularly for women), as we time off does not always mean a deterioration of skills. If anything, new experiences (which are non work related) may allow for more personal growth in the individual. No one, should be forced to choose between money and family. Because both are important in different ways, and one needs both to have a fulfilling and comfortable life.

Article By: Christine Ow


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s