Women’s representation in politics here still lacking
By Jolene Tan, Programmes and Communications Senior Manager
Oct 5 was a big milestone for Singapore. We celebrated 20 years of commitment to gender equality after acceding to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1995.
Despite some commendable steps towards gender equality, one area where Singapore is still lacking badly is political leadership, as became evident in the recent Cabinet appointments.
Disappointingly, only five of the 37 office-holders are women, making up 13.5 per cent of Cabinet. Only one full Minister, out of 20, is a woman. CEDAW recommends that women’s political representation should be at least 30 per cent to have a real impact on political style and content of decisions.
The Diversity Action Committee, which aims to increase representation of women directors on corporate boards, clearly recognises the need for gender diversity. The same should apply to the most important decision-making institution in Singapore, the Cabinet. Of course, it is unreasonable to expect 50-50 representation in Cabinet at this stage, when about a quarter of Parliament is female.
But after 20 years of CEDAW, it is fair to expect the Government to develop a specific roadmap for addressing the barriers to women’s participation in politics and ascension to leadership roles.
One issue that may be worth investigating is the barrier of unconscious bias. Unconscious bias affects every area of our lives. We naturally gravitate towards people who look like us, think like us and come from backgrounds like ours. Everybody has unconscious bias, but it is crucial to manage this so it does not affect important decision-making processes.
Research has shown that while people believe they would not reject a female job applicant based on gender alone, many employers have unconscious biases that respond more favourably to the same resume when it has a male rather than a female name.
Gender stereotypes, in many cases unconsciously held, are still prevalent in the political domain. From one politician calling his rival’s new-mother status a “weakness”, to another politician’s statement that fielding women “puts mother-child relationships at risk”, one does not have to look far for pervasive attitudes against women’s participation in public life.
Many corporations also suffer from a lack of gender diversity, but, crucially, have taken steps to implement solutions. Multinational companies such as Google and Facebook set targets for women’s advancement by acknowledging unconscious bias. Other corporate initiatives include staff training in unconscious bias, creating processes to remove biases through structured interviews and gender-diverse panels, and providing mentorship schemes.
The Government is answerable not only to shareholders, but to a diverse body of citizens with a rich variety of experiences. It is time for the Government to show leadership by setting up its own Diversity Action Committee, and take steps towards finally fulfilling the 20-year promise of CEDAW.
This letter was first published in TODAY Voices on 10 October 2015.