In a man's working world, working mums still lag behind

In a man's working world, working mums still lag behind

"Singapore best place in Asia to be a mum", proclaimed a headline in The Straits Times last week.

A "State of the World's Mothers" report had ranked Singapore the highest in Asia ahead of South Korea (30) and Japan (32).

Released by international charity Save The Children, the report looked at data from 178 countries and territories, and relied on five key indicators of maternal well-being - mortality, child health, access to education, national per capita income and political participation among women.

Singapore's pole position in Asia is hardly surprising, given that in many parts of the world's largest continent, mothers still lead lives fraught with danger, deprivation and despair.

Millions in South and South-east Asia cannot fulfil even basic human needs. In India, for example, around 130 women still die every day from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications.

In Afghanistan, four in five teenagers and young women still can't read or write. And in Laos, nearly six in 10 women don't have access to even a single skilled health-care worker while delivering their babies.

East and West Asian countries, on the other hand, are richer with better acccess to health and basic education. But mothers there often lead lives of woefully thwarted potential when it comes to participation in work or government.

In Japan, only one in 10 members of parliament is a woman; in Qatar, none. And in Saudi Arabia, the female labour force participation rate is just 16 per cent.

The top three spots on the Save The Children survey went to Finland, Norway and Sweden, all high-tax welfare states renowned as much for gender equality as for happy working mothers, and academically successful but stress-free kids. Finland was the only country in the world to be among the top 15 in all five indicators.

In terms of fulfilling basic maternal needs, Singapore ranks 15th worldwide - higher even than many other developed countries like the United States (31), Britain (26) and Canada (18).

That's no small achievement, but it has far more to do with meticulous infrastructure planning and good governance than individual mothers' achievements.

Yet, despite much introspection on plummeting fertility rates and the obvious need for more babies, there is a paucity of publicly available data on the economic and social well-being of mothers in Singapore.

There is no data on the proportion of working mothers here, for instance, although there is an imperfect proxy: Around 61 per cent of married women here work. But it is not known how many of them have children.

In member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), on the other hand, maternal employment rates range from 80 per cent in Sweden and Denmark, to around 70 per cent in Canada and the US, to around 60 per cent in Japan.

The OECD, a group of 34 developed countries, routinely tracks well-being indicators to better formulate policies that improve economic and social development.

So it also tracks how much mothers earn compared to fathers in similar jobs, and how much fathers help at home.

The gender wage gap - the difference in earnings between a man and a woman in similar jobs expressed as a percentage of male earnings - is only 7 per cent among childless couples in OECD countries. This means that for every dollar a man earns, the woman earns 93 cents. But factor in children, and it widens to 22 per cent.

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