In plain and simple language, gender equality in the workplace means that all employees, regardless of gender, have equal access to opportunities, rights, and resources.
It means that women and men have the same chances to succeed and advance in their careers. That gender is not a factor in determining pay, promotions, or job responsibilities.
But achieving gender equality in the workplace seems to me a much more complex issue. It requires addressing and removing barriers that prevent women from fully participating and advancing in the workplace.
Despite the progress towards gender equality in recent years, the issue is far from fully addressed in the workplace.
In Singapore, women continue to face challenges such as the gender pay gap and biases in hiring and promotion. Moreover, traditional gender roles and societal expectations also play a role in shaping the experiences of women in the workforce.
What can be done? More importantly, are we willing to do it?
The Singapore Situation
In Singapore, some progress has been made towards gender equality in the workplace. According to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) Labour Force in Singapore report for 2020, the female labour force participation rate has increased from 54.3 per cent in 2010 to 63.4 per cent in 2022.
But what’s worrisome is that the gender pay gap remains an issue, with women earning 6 per cent less than men in 2018.
Let that sink in – women with the same job, age, and educational qualifications as men earn, on average, 6 per cent less than their male counterparts in the same industry.
Why is this so, given that Singapore’s literacy rate is almost 99 per cent and many of our women are well-educated?
According to K. Thanaletchimi, the NTUC Women’s Committee chairperson, the key challenge women face in Singapore is balancing work, family responsibilities and ensuring self-care.
“Women are often the ones making career sacrifices for the caregiving needs of their loved ones … We must ensure that opportunities are made available to them to build their career and be able to fulfil their caregiving needs and have quality family time,” she said.
Her statement got me thinking. Could the key to achieving gender equality in the workplace be… flexibility?
What COVID Taught Us
For all the grief and problems it caused us, a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic was that we found out that flexible work arrangements (FWA) can work.
When the whole world stopped, workers all over got to continue working from home – and still got the job done.
The percentage of firms that offered at least one FWA rose to 78 per cent in 2020, up from 53 per cent pre-pandemic. Close to 6 in 10 firms, or 59 per cent, also offered more than one formal FWA in 2020, up from 2 in 10 in 2019.
Now that things have settled into a new normal, some of those initiatives seem to have been scaled back.
I think that’s a shame.
I believe flexibility is an essential factor in achieving gender equality in the workplace. Because women still bear most caregiving responsibilities, it is difficult for them to maintain full-time employment.
FWAs can also benefit men who may wish to take on a more significant share of caregiving responsibilities.
Ms Thanaletchimi and the NTUC Women’s Committee have been championing for every workplace to be family-friendly. Partly because of their efforts, the Government is putting out a set of guidelines on FWA to be ready by 2024.
It aims to create a workplace norm where it is acceptable for employees to request for flexible-work while maintaining the employer’s prerogative to accept or reject based on their business needs.
“All it takes is to be more inclusive, flexible, and progressive in managing diverse needs of workers … Put in safeguards to protect women from abuse, harassment and discrimination.
“On this point, I look forward to the legislation on workplace fairness so that our women benefit from equal treatment at the workplace,” Ms Thanaletchimi said.
According to another MOM report in 2022, an estimated 260,000 women aged 25 to 64 of economic age are not participating in the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities. How do we attract them back to the workforce or stay in the workforce?
While I think that flexibility is key, I know that flexibility alone is not sufficient.
Other key factors may include eliminating gender bias in hiring and promotion, providing equal pay for equal work, and fostering a workplace culture that values diversity and inclusion.
Employers can also ensure that their workplace culture is inclusive and respectful and that all employees feel valued and supported.
When I asked Ms Thanaletchimi her definition of gender equality in the workplace, she said: “It means recognising the potential and capabilities of a person through a gender-blind lens.
“Valuing the contributions of a person with gender parity currency. And fulfilling career aspirations of a person with a gender-neutral mindset.”
Despite all the complex issues, it’s really as plain and simple as that.