By Renita Sophia Crasta
This International Women’s Day, I would sum up my feelings as one of excitement. Excitement coming off the back of a whole year of lively discussions and the exchange of ideas through the nation-wide held Conversations on Women’s Development, and excitement as we await the outcomes of a year of evaluation and consolidation by the Ministry to respond to such feedback.
Indeed, as Minister Shanmugam set the tone in a most inspiring speech in September 2020 at the launch of the Conversations on Women’s Development dialogues series:
“Today’s dialogue marks the continuation of a journey to examine the obstacles that remain in the path of gender equality. I encourage all of you to participate actively and make your views known. The outcome of this process is not just a White Paper with recommendations, but it has got to be a clear message to every young girl today, and in the future, that Singapore will always be a place where they can achieve their fullest potential, fulfil their hopes and fulfil their dreams.”
As a fellow organiser and participant for a number of the dialogues myself too – I observed how Singaporean women and some men all across Singapore and from various walks of life, came forward to be involved in the Conversations of Women’s Development. The conversations were thus an active and lively exchange with a series of topics discussed ranging from caregiving, flexible work, sexual harassment and online harms to the need for women to be more active in total defence.
While this article in no way represents an actual narration or indication of what is to result from the Government’s White Paper, I am most happy to share some of my own insights into some of the pertinent and ongoing issues that have arisen which affect us all.
The Ministry of Manpower has long been a proponent of flexible work arrangements, encouraging the same time and again to be adopted by employers across Singapore. The range of flexible work arrangements range from staggered hours or choice of leave days, sharing of job loads depending where needed, to work from home arrangements. Having said the above, a 2021 IPSOS survey indicated that 77% of Singaporeans expressed their preference for flexible arrangements.
Indeed, the pandemic has shown first-hand the ability of many jobs being able to be performed from home, cutting down hours taken away from being away from family at home and the hassle spent in crazy commuting hours. While there have definitely been some stresses taking care of a child amidst having to juggle completing a job from home, many of my parent-friends have also shared how their quality of life and relationships spent with their children at home has been so much more fruitful and well-spent. Not only are parents able to create better bonds with their children and spouses at home, they have also been able to be more engaged in their parenting journey and to engage in some self-care for themselves.
Apart from work, at the central crux of many of our women’s conversations revolving around the context of home came the topic of caregiving. Indeed, women often play a central role in the caregiving role, whether for seniors or their children. This in turn often takes a toll on them not just at work in their financial and career trajectories, but also in terms of their overall and physical health. While the Government has put in place various caregiving support measures through its 2019 Caregiver Support Action Plan, more can be done.
For example, this issue is closely intertwined with the solution of flexible work arrangements, as many women also came to value the many benefits and flexibility that such work from home arrangements could bring. In addition, the need to assist women to return to work too was highlighted, alongside the need to ensure that women do not miss out on the opportunities that may be had at work just because they have to juggle other responsibilities.
Workplace Opportunities and Promotions
The gender pay gap in Singapore has also reportedly improved from 8.8% in 2002 to 4.3% in 2020. Nevertheless, the concern for gender promotions and opportunities, especially in traditionally male industries and/or certain growth sectors such as IT, as well as to board positions, was also brought up in several discussions. Lower income from any still existing gender pay gaps and less women in the workforce also leads to lower income security for women, especially in their older years. In line with this, Singapore continues to promote the efforts of the Council of Board Diversity and greater re-employment by returning women to the workforce.
Covid-19 saw the increase in the rates of domestic violence cases, and the Government promptly launched the 24/7 National AntiViolence Helpline (NAVH) to make it easier for victims of violence and members of the public to seek help and report abuse.
In addition, in line with increasing technological trends of social media and other online platform usage, arose the exacerbation of online harms.
As seen from a Talking Point 2018 survey, 3 in 4 young people are reported to have faced online bullying. Likewise, various incidents of sexual harassment have also been seen online such as the Monica Baey video leak incident, and the prevalence of chat groups such as the Nasi Lemak Telegram chat which had shared obscene videos. In this regard, according to 2020 Aware and IPSOS survey, at least 2 in 5 women have reported that they have experienced sexual harassment at the workplace.
While legal remedies remain in place for victims to have redress, the existence of such legal remedies to already distressed victims may not be as readily known, and in addition, even where such remedies are known, victims still often require extensive support to even come forward to report or even seek help.
The government’s recent announcement to introduce a Code of Practice to set an online code of conduct, which seeks to alleviate some of such harms, and the taking of steps to include first responders at the grassroots level all across the community is a most welcome move.
Most compelling also is the decision to enact workplace harassment laws, consultations of which are now ongoing and which are expected to be in place by later 2022. These will set clear guidelines for how such issues should be looked into and redressed at the workplace.
Last but not least, one of the most repeated but perhaps most difficult issues that was spoken about was the need for mindset change. Many opined that there was a need to start young through the education system as well as in the media to change expectations in relation to the roles women and girls can play at home, school, work and in the community. Kudos for example to the Singaporean series, Lions Mum that portrays women in strong positions and their husbands also playing a part in the home environment. Additionally, there was also recognition that male allies, mentorship and coaching programmes, as well as the intentional efforts to have more women, including in under-represented positions such as on company boards or growth sectors, such as STEM, is extremely vital.
Interestingly, many of these topics also surfaced in the PAP Women’s Wing own 12 recommendations on women empowerment released in 2021, where tangible outcomes were also proposed. It remains with anticipation that we await the White Paper on Women’s Development as well.
Closing off, I am most grateful to be able to quote Minister Shanmugam again in the aforementioned inspiring speech as he says, “In conclusion, let me say this. A society which does not recognize the equal position of women, is a society which can never live up to its potential. Even more so in Singapore, where people are our only assets.”
Indeed, if this is what we have been taught all our lives on the importance of the people of Singapore, then it is critical that each of us are able to realise our full potential, to live in harmony and appreciate each other, while we rally together, towards a better and kinder Singapore.
Renita Sophia Crasta is a legal counsel with a Singaporean MNC. Beyond work, she actively volunteers with various causes, including with the elderly and the marginalised. The causes of women remain close to her heart, and she continues to participate actively in various local women groups such as the Young Women’s Leadership Connection (YWLC), the Women’s Chapter of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association as well as for her cultural groups and various grassroots initiatives, and more recently as a founding board member of Women in Sustainability and Environment (WISE).
For more information about Women in Sustainability and Environment (WISE), go to www.wise.org.sg/about-us/wise; for more information about the Young Women’s Leadership Connection (YWLC), go to www.ywlc.org.sg, and for more information about the Women’s Chapter of the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association, go to www.scca.org.sg.
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