More equal sharing of caregiving responsibilities, better education on issues of sex and consent, and weeding out banter that objectifies women – these are some of the issues affecting women which advocates want to see considered in a comprehensive review that was announced on Sunday (Sept 20).
Legislating some of these suggestions will send a strong signal on women’s role in Singapore society, but ultimately such efforts must be coupled with education to drive a change in mindset, they added, responding to the Government’s announcement of the review, which aims to bring about deep-seated changes in attitudes towards gender issues.
The review will culminate in a White Paper to be delivered in the first half of next year (2021), said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam.
Executive director for the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) Corrina Lim lauded the initiative, adding it was crucial it addressed the most pressing issues facing women currently.
These include: The societal expectation that women should be the primary caregivers at home, the widespread acceptance of the sexual objectification of women, and the low priority placed by workplaces on issues of discrimination and bias.
“What is most exciting to Aware is the stated approach to review the underlying values and cultural mindset towards women and gender equality, instead of looking only at issues in the short-term. In this regard, we hope that the Government will consider explicitly enshrining gender equality in the Singapore Constitution,” added Ms Lim.
The review will be led by Minister of State for Education and Social and Family Development Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth and Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling, and Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam.
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MP for Nee Soon GRC Louis Ng, who has been a strong advocate in Parliament for gender equality at workplaces as well as in the home, said the review is a “breakthrough” but hoped there would be legislation to support the resulting policies.
“Perhaps it is time to legislate some of the (existing) guidelines to show some importance to the issues, and this then goes to changing mindsets,” he added, citing as example guidelines by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) that forbid employers from asking interviewees and employees about their marital status and plans to have children.
“These are tripartite guidelines, but either people are not following them or they are not aware of them,” said Mr Ng.
“Legislation forms the foundation, and we need to get the legislation right, and then after that the mindset will shift.”
At the workplace
Ms K Thanaletchimi, who is chairman of the NTUC Women’s Committee, said areas for improvement include institutionalising flexible work arrangements and having paid caregiving leave, especially as women currently shoulder much of this work.
She said: “While it is heartening that flexible work arrangements are much more widespread now (with Covid-19), we hope the government would also look to legislating this if there is a fear that employers would revert to previous practices after this period.”
Ms Lim of Aware said that while female representation in board positions is a useful index, the White Paper should ideally take an “intersectional” approach, and avoid being an examination of issues that only affect privileged women.
“Beyond the White Paper, we hope that the government pays greater attention to representation and inclusion in all areas, such as its senior management and taskforces,” she said.
Ms Attiya Ashraf Ali, 25, vice-president of Mendaki Club who participated in a dialogue session following Mr Shanmugam’s speech on Sunday, said among the topics discussed was career progression and opportunities, and external factors that could undermine them.
These factors include caregiving responsibilities that traditionally fall to women. She added: “(This could) affect their ability to contribute meaningfully to the workplace, which could have implications on how they are able to get promoted.”
Ultimately, to make substantive progress in gender equality, the whole of society needs to change how it perceives women and get rid of negative stereotypes, said Ms Thanaletchimi, who is also President of the Healthcare Services Employees Union and a former Nominated MP.
“There is stereotyping going on in the minds of many people, including women, and they perceive that men and women should be doing certain work or dressed a certain way. I think it takes the whole of society to rectify this – a mindset change,” she said.
Communications professional Candy Choo, 24, who has spoken up for women’s rights and gender issues on her social media platforms, said she would like to see more men also advocate equality.
One way of doing this is to call out problematic behaviour from other men, such as making derogatory comments, sexist jokes, or making sexual advances on colleagues, she said.
Another change she would like to see is not having a person’s level of education play a mitigating factor when being prosecuted for sexual crimes in court. “Offenders of good education backgrounds should be expected to know right from wrong,” she said.
Mr Bryan Chiew, 23, who is president of the Nanyang Technological University Student Union, said: “For instance, ‘locker room talk’ that perpetuates objectification of women is something we must stamp out and not just be a bystander, although this might be very difficult to do, especially when one is among peers.”
He added the union has been working with the university management to review policies related to sexual harassment and set boundaries on appropriate behaviour between the sexes.
Elaborating on this point, Mr Khairul Hilmi Mohd Khair, 32, who works at an engineering consulting firm and was one of the co-facilitators for the dialogue session, said he hopes to get more men involved in tackling gender issues alongside women.
“We know where we aspire to be in terms of the gender equality map, and a lot of policies are slowly changing. But accompanying those policies is the critical need for a mindset shift,” said Mr Khairul Hilmi, who is also an advisory committee member at Youth Corps Singapore.
He said this shift was possible in the “small things” at home and in social gatherings such as having the moral courage to speak out when people, especially men, have inappropriate conversations about the opposite gender.
“If we keep silent, we are reinforcing these wrong values,” he said.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.