'Opting out' and the glass ceiling

'Opting out' and the glass ceiling

We would all like to believe that Singapore society is unprejudiced, valuing contributions - not gender - when deciding on employment matters.

Faced with women's under-representation in leadership, many reach for the explanation that women willingly "opt out" or "choose" to "hold themselves back", ignoring structural barriers to women's advancement.

This under-representation is significant. A recent report found that only 23 per cent of senior-management roles in Singapore are held by women, the lowest percentage in ASEAN.

Only 7.9 per cent of directors of Singapore Exchange-listed companies are women, leaving us behind neighbours (Malaysia, Indonesia) and comparable economies (Hong Kong).

We should resist the comfortable idea that this is, simplistically, a question of women's "choices". Sexist attitudes remain. In a recent survey by Robert Half, 71 per cent of human resource (HR) managers in medium-sized firms in Singapore cited "societal perceptions of women" as holding women back. Forty-three per cent at large firms perceived a "lack of promotional opportunities for women".

Women in various fields regularly report to the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) experiences of sexist condescension in their professional lives.

Last week, MyPaper reported that Ms Joanne Chua of Robert Walters described the sexist labelling of high-achieving women, but characterised its impact as rooted in women's "choices", saying that women "limit themselves" out of "fear of being labelled as aggressive, iron ladies or overly ambitious".

Women indeed have "choices" as to how to respond to sexist labelling, but those of us who care about fairness should focus on why that labelling takes place to begin with, and how to end it.

Men do not face similar social penalties for taking on leadership roles. Unlike women, they simply need not choose between success and societal approval: They can have both. This is a clear example of gender inequality damaging women's prospects.

In thinking and talking about women's "choices" to "opt out", we need to go beyond the mere fact of a choice to ask: What structures shape the options that the women must choose between? Why are they different from - typically more restrictive than - the options available to men? How can we expand them?

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