Helping Women Under Pressure At Home And At Work

At a speech at last week’s The Singapore Woman Award ceremony, Minister for Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam spoke of his surprise when he found out about the low percentage of women in top corporate management here. In his speech, he also outlined some of the measures that are being taken to address the challenges women face at work and at home. Below is an excerpt.

Most of us are aware, generally, of the difficulties women face in trying to have a successful career and of the hard choices that society forces upon them. I became more aware a few years ago when BoardAgender came to meet me. They highlighted the low level of representation of women in corporate senior management.

It was a surprise to me at that point in time because of my own experience in my law firm. If you look at my then-partnership, two-thirds (of lawyers) were women. In law school, two-thirds (of students) were young women. From the ages of 19 to 21, you know how boys are. The women turn up nicely dressed, mature, they speak well and they are prepared. Boys come in sandals and they are monosyllabic. So if we did not do positive discrimination, the entire law school would be full of women.

And likewise in Allen and Gledhill, where I was doing recruitment, we had to actively look out for some boys to employ. The women just outperform at interviews, at that age anyway. And if you look around, in accounting, medicine, you would normally not think of Singapore as a society where women are discriminated against. But BoardAgender showed me the figures in corporate board representation and they were sobering.

Before I deal with these issues, let me recount an anecdote that I think touches on a fairly fundamental underlying issue. I met the Norwegian Foreign Minister; he highlighted the approach in Norway. The men are expected to take time off to look after the children when they are infants. If they do not, their bosses will ask them why not? And that will have an impact on promotion.

New employers will look at your CV to see whether you have taken a year off to look after your children. If you have not, that would count against you. With that as a background, let me touch on four issues that affect women. One, the corporate boardroom; two, the issues women face at the workplace; three, some structural impediments that women face in the family justice system; and four, expectations placed on women at home.


Credit Suisse issued a report in September last year. It said female representation at the board level in Singapore companies fell from 8.6 per cent in 2012 … to 7.9 per cent in 2013. We are below the global average of 12.7 per cent, which itself is low. And if you compare among Asian countries, others in the region, we are also below them.

There was a recent survey by Hays. It showed that only 25 per cent of management positions in Singapore were held by women. We were the second-lowest among the Asian countries surveyed, behind China, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

Beyond fairness, there are actually good business reasons to reverse this trend. Studies suggest that female representation on boards is generally good for the firms. It usually translates to higher profit margins. Women probably temper the alpha male behaviour a little bit. An analysis of 1,500 Standard & Poor’s firms over 15 years showed that the more women they had in top management, the more market value they generated.

On March 6, Germany passed a law. It required some of Europe’s largest companies to give 30 per cent of supervisory board positions to women. The law will come into force next year. Germany joins Norway, Spain, France, Iceland, Belgium and the Netherlands in setting quotas for women in the boardroom.

Here in Singapore, we have not gone for hard, legally-mandated quotas. But the Government has been trying to encourage greater women representation on boards to shape norms. Last year, the Ministry of Social and Family Development accepted 10 recommendations by the Diversity Task Force, including programmes and training to help qualified women take on senior management positions. I think we have to keep emphasising the need for change and the need to set new norms.

Aside from the boardrooms, women have to contend with a variety of challenges in the workplace. I will only touch on one aspect, which is harassment. AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) did a study in 2008 that involved 500 respondents and 92 companies. AWARE found that 54 per cent of those surveyed had experienced some form of workplace harassment. 79 per cent of the victims were women, 21 per cent were men. This is sexual harassment. This harassment is unacceptable. Women need more protection.

The Ministry of Law passed the Protection from Harassment Act in March last year. It is now in force. This will help protect women better at the workplace, from stalking and (from those) trying to embarrass women online, shame them, which happens all too frequently. This Act has a lot of teeth. You can go to court, get remedies quickly and inexpensively. We made it easy to use, we made it inexpensive. It is a tool for protection and it is a tool that we hope can help slowly change behaviour.

Difficulties in the legal system and at home

No one wants a marriage to end in a divorce. But when it does, we have to make it easier for women to cope. There are several difficulties. I will mention two: One is maintenance; the other is getting an HDB (Housing and Development Board) flat.

We have now changed the laws (for divorce proceedings). We have made sure that divorce disputes will be handled quickly and led by judges. The lawyers will no longer dictate the rounds of affidavits.

Basically, divorce proceedings are seen by parties as a way of rearguing the 10, 15 or 20 years of marriage. This is unnecessary. There are only three issues: What happens to the children, how the assets are to be divided and how much maintenance is to be paid. So we focus on that.

We tell the judge to lead it, we prepare a short template affidavit, everybody has got to fit (their arguments) into that one-page template, you do not need 200 pages. It reduces legal costs. (We have) specialised family courts where the judges will be very knowledgeable about the issues and you will get a clear standard approach.

So all those changes have been made; they will be rolled out and the impact will be felt on the ground from this year onwards. And women will find it much easier. (As for) maintenance, we will also make changes over the next two years to make it much easier to recover money that has been ordered to be paid.

HDB flats post-divorce is another big issue. Eighty per cent of our population lives in public flats. And the issues are usually that after divorce, the former wife might find it difficult to get a flat because you are entitled to subsidies only twice. If she has used it up, there would be difficulties. You also do not want the system to be gamed, but the HDB now exercises flexibility in genuine cases. And we will do more in that area.

Dr Vivienne Wee from AWARE said women face unequal expectations as compared with men; are seen as having a duty to reproduce and take on “natural responsibilities” of caring for the elderly and children.

I think many of us realise that men do need to step up to share the domestic chores with their wives.

Again, research shows that in families where men share the housework with their wives, the wives are happier and less depressed. Divorce rates are lower in such households. Both also live longer.

But on that note, if I may share something else, research also shows that married men and unmarried women are the ones who live longest. So you can imagine who passes the stress to whom.

Another study shows that if you look at daughters of fathers who helped around the house, they were more likely to have higher aspirations. They are more likely to break the mould.

But both partners doing housework together is, of course, not always easy. There will be many cases where either the man — culturally usually the man — or the woman will have very demanding jobs.

And sharing equally is not possible. In such cases, there has to be an agreement, some sensible arrangement. It may have to involve the in-laws to get additional support. Sometimes both may hold such demanding jobs. What can be done? I think we have to be more understanding of the pressures that women face.



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