May 19th, 2014

Caregiving support needed for board gender diversity

By Jolene Tan, Programmes and Communications Senior Manager, Association of Women for Action and Research

manIt is heartening to see a growing consensus that the under-representation of women in organisational leadership requires a proactive response (“Why boards need to ensure gender diversity”; May 14).

Measures focused on corporate boards, however, address the tip of the iceberg; there is a deeper pipeline issue resulting in a relative lack of women with sufficient professional experience for the highest levels of leadership.

Ministry of Manpower (MOM) statistics show that labour participation rates for women and men are comparable until the age of 30. Then, female labour force participation falls with age, creating a wider gap over time.

Accordingly, the higher we look up a business hierarchy, the more we can expect female under-representation.

There are two key reasons: First, employers do not adequately support employees with caregiving responsibilities; second, gender-inequitable attitudes persist in society.

Everyone has domestic needs and responsibilities. Men are as likely as women to have children or other family members who need care. But the burden of caregiving work continues to fall largely on women.

MOM statistics show that 43 per cent of women who are economically inactive cite housework and caregiving as the main reason, compared with 1.8 per cent of men.

In a recent Robert Half survey, 71 per cent of human resource managers in large firms believed that a lack of work-life balance was a barrier to women. None thought that women lacked ambition.

It is thus unsurprising that the latest Grant Thornton International Business Report showed Singapore has one of the lowest levels of women in senior management in the region.

If we are to build a society that truly gives everyone, regardless of gender, the chance to enjoy both economic well-being and a family life, changes must occur in workplace culture and everyday culture.

Access to flexi-work arrangements and accommodation for domestic responsibilities must be accepted as a normal, integral part of employment, not an exceptional concession. The Government has a role in fostering a climate where these changes can occur.

The expectation that workers do not need flexi-work arrangements is based on the assumption that someone else, usually a woman, is taking care of family needs behind the scenes.

If an economy aims to give opportunities for all to contribute, it cannot rely on this short-sighted approach, which ultimately holds women back from leadership positions.

This letter was first published in  TODAY on 17 May 2014.

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