With the onset of #MeToo movement, workplace harassment has become the centre of most online discussions on women’s rights and gender issues globally.
However, there are other issues that concern young Singaporeans in relation to improving gender equality in our society.
This is what I realised after spending my Saturday afternoon (Feb. 6) with over 70 young Singaporeans in a Zoom discussion called “Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development”.
What concerned these participants the most can be classified into three categories broadly: 1) work-life harmony, 2) workplace harassment and 3) the lack of female representatives in the leadership or senior management positions.
Working mothers have “two shifts” to juggle
Maintaining work-life harmony is already not an easy feat for an unmarried person like me. Those with kids definitely have it even harder.
I have witnessed how my colleague, who recently returned from maternity leave, has to juggle both work and caring for her child.
I am relieved at times because I do not have this additional responsibility as a parent even though I am missing out on the immense joy of being a mother.
I am not alone in this. One participant said that her colleagues had reservations about having children because they know how hard it is to manage work-life balance with a new baby in tow.
Another participant aptly described the caregiving role of mothers as a “second shift” of their work. That reminded me of my mother. She would dive straight into completing the house chores after work, ensuring we were well-fed and clothes were ironed.
This doesn’t always have to be the case though.
Having formal mechanisms to ensure supportive husbands and workplaces will be helpful
Many participants shared that women should not always have to play the main caregiver role, and called for men to be more proactive in parenting.
Some couples in Singapore take on caregiving duties together. Like my male colleagues, they would be in-charge of sending the children to and fro schools. This is helpful to working mothers who might need to work overtime for example.
Other suggestions raised during the conversation include giving equal parental leave days to both working mothers and fathers and having more amenities in offices such as playrooms.
Some also pointed out the lack of formal mechanisms to ensure a supportive work environment for mothers.
Currently, it really “depends on individual bosses or team cultures”. While it is heartening to know there are such workplaces around, is this really enough?
That sentiment was shared during the Zoom discussion, especially those who suggested legislating guidelines to ensure all companies are supportive of working women in their workplaces.
Awareness on what constitutes workplace harassment
Workplace harassment was the second most popular issue raised during the conversation.
We spend long hours interacting with our colleagues in our workplaces, sometimes even more time spent in the office than at home. It fills me with dread to imagine how some people have to work in hostile or/and uncomfortable workplaces.
Over the discussion, we realised that many actions can constitute a form of workplace harassment.
Even a small action such as commenting on a woman’s lipstick colour should be considered as workplace harassment, one participant said, as that makes her feel uncomfortable.
One participant also echoed the same sentiment as she said that in her current workplace in Germany, she does not hear comments on how women dress themselves at work which she appreciates a lot.
That got me thinking. More such discussions should be conducted with the workforce to understand how different people interpret workplace harassment.
Without the same level of understanding on what workplace harassment is, the perpetrator can use this excuse to brush things aside.
A participant brought up a salient example - when her female colleagues spoke up about it, their complaints were trivialised, and they were told that their male colleague was “just being friendly”.
Raising awareness and help create a safe environment for victims to voice out
One suggestion raised in response was to educate people in Singapore on what constitutes workplace harassment before they enter the workforce.
Females should also be aware of their rights in the workplace and victims of harassment should not be fearful to voice it out.
A participant called for the introduction of safety nets for victims to speak up about workplace harassment as some might be fearful of potential negative repercussions or lack of the confidence in the way their case will be handled.
As workplace harassment can be a sensitive matter to talk about, another participant also reminded us that it is important to learn how to tactfully communicate such matters with victims.
Do women really have equal opportunities in work progression?
Many organisations in Singapore today are still dominated by men at senior management level.
That clearly can be rather discouraging for women. One participant said that it perpetuates a stereotypical observation that men are more capable and women are irrational and unambitious.
Without sufficient females in leadership or senior management positions, younger women also lack role models to look up to.
One participant also shared how she observed a difference in leadership style from a female vice provost at a local university that she works in. Another also said that a female boss can better understand the challenges that fellow working women face.
That said, some progress has been made in recent years as there are more prominent "girl bosses" from Singapore such as Velda Tan and Rachel Lim who founded fashion brand Love Bonito. In Parliament, we now have a record number of female Members of the Parliament too.
Another suggestion that a participant gave was to have a structured framework to groom female talents.
For those who are concerned, they are also worried if a male-dominated management would want to “rock the boat” and be seen as “radical” by including more females. Will the management understand or see the need to change if certain gender stereotypes are so entrenched?
That left me with even more food for thought after the two-hour conversation.
Find out more and share your views too
The “Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development” dialogue I joined was part of a series of dialogues that aims to understand Singaporeans’ aspirations and ideas on how to improve gender equality in Singapore.
The feedback collected from these sessions will contribute to a White Paper to be published in 2021 and will be discussed in Parliament.
The one I attended on Feb. 6 focused on workplace issues. Prior to that, two other sessions were held with youths in December last year and January which focused on schools as well as home and community.
If you are interested to find out more about what the young participants have discussed in the three sessions, you can read more from Youthopia.SG and share your views on gender equality.
Top photo via Some Media/YouTube. The sponsored article by the National Youth Council hopes to include your views into this conversation if you couldn’t join the three-part dialogue session on women’s development. Join the conversation now.