Mar 26, 2014

    'Opting out' and the glass ceiling

    WE WOULD all like to believe that Singapore society is unprejudiced, valuing contributions - not gender - when deciding on employment matters.

    Faced with women's under-representation in leadership, many reach for the explanation that women willingly "opt out" or "choose" to "hold themselves back", ignoring structural barriers to women's advancement.

    This under-representation is significant. A recent report found that only 23 per cent of senior-management roles in Singapore are held by women, the lowest percentage in Asean.

    Only 7.9 per cent of directors of Singapore Exchange-listed companies are women, leaving us behind neighbours (Malaysia, Indonesia) and comparable economies (Hong Kong).

    We should resist the comfortable idea that this is, simplistically, a question of women's "choices". Sexist attitudes remain. In a recent survey by Robert Half, 71 per cent of human resource (HR) managers in medium-sized firms in Singapore cited "societal perceptions of women" as holding women back. Forty-three per cent at large firms perceived a "lack of promotional opportunities for women".

    Women in various fields regularly report to the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) experiences of sexist condescension in their professional lives.

    Last week, MyPaper reported that Ms Joanne Chua of Robert Walters described the sexist labelling of high-achieving women, but characterised its impact as rooted in women's "choices", saying that women "limit themselves" out of "fear of being labelled as aggressive, iron ladies or overly ambitious".

    Women indeed have "choices" as to how to respond to sexist labelling, but those of us who care about fairness should focus on why that labelling takes place to begin with, and how to end it.

    Men do not face similar social penalties for taking on leadership roles. Unlike women, they simply need not choose between success and societal approval: They can have both. This is a clear example of gender inequality damaging women's prospects.

    In thinking and talking about women's "choices" to "opt out", we need to go beyond the mere fact of a choice to ask: What structures shape the options that the women must choose between? Why are they different from - typically more restrictive than - the options available to men? How can we expand them?

    It is disingenuous to say women "choose" or "take on themselves" the primary burden of housework and caregiving, when state policy and societal norms reinforce the unequal division of domestic labour. Paternity leave is extremely limited, compared to maternity leave, and childcare subsidies are structured around a model of female primary caregivers.

    In an Aware survey of 1,322 people, 58 per cent of male respondents thought that women should take care of household chores and caregiving, compared to 47 per cent of female respondents.

    A woman who does not desire this responsibility may have little alternative if her male partner is uncooperative, especially if general societal expectations support him in his position.

    Employing an underpaid domestic worker may stave off negotiations between heterosexual spouses for more equality - but the work is still done by a woman, and who instructs and supervises her?

    Everyone has domestic needs. Men's underwear needs laundering no less than women's, and men are generally as likely as women to have children and parents who need care.

    The entire concept of an employee with no need for work-life balance rides on the hidden assumption that the employee can offload domestic responsibilities onto someone else - an arrangement usually available only to men, at the expense of women.

    Little wonder then that 71 per cent of HR managers in large firms in the Robert Half survey said that lack of work-life balance held women back - and 0 per cent thought these women lacked ambition.

    These barriers to economic participation have detrimental consequences on women's welfare. According to the Ministry of Manpower, 43 per cent of women who are economically inactive cite domestic responsibilities as the main reason; the figure is 1.8 per cent for men.

    As a result, women in general retire with significantly less CPF savings than men, leading to greater dependence on others to meet their daily and health-care expenses.

    As they climb the career ladder, some women may duck their heads to avoid smashing into the "glass ceiling" - but that doesn't mean it has vanished. It will only go if we actively work to dismantle it, rather than pretend that it doesn't exist.


    The writer is the programmes and communications senior manager of the Association of Women for Action and Research, a gender-equality advocacy group.