PERSPECTIVE: As a director in a recruitment consultancy firm, Sabrina Ho once attended a meeting with a male client who assumed she was a translator, and mistook her male colleague for the boss.
In another incident, Ho saw a woman who was about to be offered her dream job get turned down after the company discovered she was expecting.
After more than a decade in the recruitment industry and witnessing firsthand the discriminatory practices often faced by women building their careers, Ho decided to take the leap and do something to level the proverbial playing field for women.
In 2019, Ho founded Half The Sky, a career platform for women that connects them to equal opportunity employers, so they can excel in their careers while being wives, mothers, daughters, and play the multitude of other roles women often undertake.
Today, "Half The Sky" has more than 100,000 community members, and offers jobs across industries in more than 14 countries, working together with leading Fortune 500 companies.
Ho shares her observations of what needs to change for women in the workplace to feel just as empowered and enabled as their male colleagues.
In 2021, Ho was listed as one of Singapore's most successful and influential young people on Prestige's "40 under 40" list. She was also on the "Singapore 100 Women in Tech List 2021".
Ho's essay was first published in The Birthday Book: (Re)start. Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2022 edition of The Birthday Book.
The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 57 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.
By Sabrina Ho
Challenging times often have a way of making us search for meaning.
Maybe that’s because, being human, we seek a rationale – a resonating justification, a sensible pattern – something that explains why something happened, why something changed.
Needless to say, change unsettles us.
It’s something we do all our lives, yet it feels unnatural when the status quo shifts.
Everyone takes time (no matter how adaptive they are) to regain their sense of balance.
Any change, be it sudden or glacial, has three parts to it – the build-up (the growing wave), the point of flux (the crashing peak) and the aftermath (the fizzing, receding foam).
This is true about us changing internally as well.
Look at the last two years – have you changed? Have you seen big changes in the world around you?
If you’re like me, the chances are that you have – in more ways than one.
How "Half The Sky" came about
Tumultuous as the last two years may have been, they had a lot to teach us.
Resilience and the ability to bounce back were right at the top of those teachings.
These, however, are tools that help us all our lives, irrespective of the challenges that come our way. This "bouncebackability", if you will, is also what helps you take charge and change things that you feel passionately about.
Having seen and faced several injustices at work during my long stint in the recruitment industry, I felt the need to make a change – in my life and eventually in the lives of others facing similar hurdles.
Growing up in Hong Kong, with entrepreneur parents who had always encouraged my brother and I to speak our minds and stand up for what we believed in, I felt the need to do something rather than just accept how things were.
Those early lessons in my parents’ acrylic factory and at home definitely make up a big part of who I am.
My parents always told me, “If you want to run a business, make sure you have a business that can help people” and I think that’s how Half The Sky came to be.
Addressing archaic workplace practices
When I think about what needs to change for women at work to feel as empowered and enabled as their male colleagues, I think about the conversation around equality.
Equal opportunity does not end at hiring a woman.
It demands that we be mindful every step of the way – that we provide equal opportunities for professional growth and personal progress – throughout her career.
As the new era of work takes shape, there is also the need to build a new working culture that protects the future of every individual irrespective of their gender.
Overcoming adversity may be an individual battle at the personal level but a collective effort at the societal level.
Challenges that need to be addressed in the years to come (as we navigate the aftermath of the pandemic) include:
Organisations cannot stop at introducing greater flexibility at work – they need to build a culture where employees availing the flexibility benefits are not discriminated against.
Whether it is about maternity leave, remote work or working flexible hours, women report facing negativity even if their performance is unaffected.
Women face additional challenges when they move up the corporate hierarchy, often having to work much harder to get a promotion and then continually having to prove that they deserve it.
More transparency in hiring and promotion decisions with objective, well-defined criteria would help communicate the value of a meritocracy.
Managing discrimination in a virtual workforce is often more challenging. It would help to ensure open communication channels and set up a process for raising concerns.
Women often experience more micromanagement when working remotely than their male colleagues. Managers need better training in supporting their teams over distance without being overbearing or discriminatory.
With the ongoing great reshuffle, it is natural there will be employees who have taken a break from work or who have switched careers during the pandemic years.
It's short-sighted to penalise them for their decisions.
Moreover, businesses need to understand that denying them opportunities for work or growth could actually, in turn, lead to the loss of a crucial talent pool.
In the years to come, there will be greater need to focus on mental wellness at work.
A workplace culture that supports investing time and effort in improving mental health would enable employees to feel safer and be organically productive.
Inspiring women to rise up
We’re still amidst change, but that can be beautiful in its own way – like looking through a kaleidoscope – creating art out of broken pieces.
This is the time to get all our pieces together and plan ahead.
While we rethink our way forward, we need to reset our individual agendas for the time to come.
The pandemic hastened our march towards a digital, virtual, hyperconnected world – but it also made obvious the deep inequality that persists all around us.
With Singapore managing the pandemic well and world economies opening up, the job market is moving towards more stability, leading to new career opportunities.
We need to prepare to make the most of these.
My advice to every woman out there would be to use this time to invest in yourself – upskill, focus inward, find your sense of purpose and work towards your happiness.
We need to seize the opportunities coming our way without compromising on any other aspects of our lives.
Be centred, hold onto your truth and lead on!
Top image via @iamsabrinaho on Instagram