It's time women settle for more

The lack of outrage about Singapore's gender pay gap and board representation is worrying
PHOTO: The Business Times

Casual sexism is something I believe every female has encountered at some point.

Once, an older business leader told me over lunch that Singaporean women are too picky when it comes to their choice of husbands. I responded that having high standards is a good thing - Singaporean men can then step up to the plate. That did not go down too well.

Another in the food and beverage line also told me innocently that female staff need to be "pampered" with more TLC (tender loving care) as women are always quarrelling among themselves. I nearly choked on my tea.

These are nice, well-meaning men, who don't even have a clue that what they said is offensive. This makes addressing these deep-rooted beliefs and mindsets all the more challenging.

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The problem is, men are not the only ones who can be sexist. Some women have internalised such ideas over the years, and to this day still believe that their husband's job takes precedence or that females don't make good leaders. But this does not fully explain the lack of outrage among Singapore women regarding the pay gap and female leadership representation.

BT Weekend finds out if working women here are unaware, nonchalant or resigned to fate.

Please mind the gap

One study that particularly hits close to home is by NUS Business School's Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations, which found that female directors earned 56.8 per cent of male directors' remuneration on average, indicating a gender pay gap of 43.2 per cent.

Lead author associate professor Marleen Dieleman told The Business Times that the disparity in board pay is due to two reasons: women getting paid less for the same role, and women being relegated to lower-paying roles. She explains: "The overall pay gap is large mainly because women are rarely present in the highest paying director roles such as CEO or executive chairman."

Women who did manage to get on boards are observed to be relegated to lower-paying roles even if they are capable, she points out.

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The report findings may not be surprising, but it is Singapore women's rather lukewarm response to it that is worrying. Junie Foo, co-founder and chairwoman of BoardAgender, says that women in Singapore are certainly aware of the disparity, but may not want to take it upon themselves to go through the grief of addressing it. "More often than not, women don't really ask (to be paid more). When they go to their bosses and say they have done this, this and this, they come across as aggressive. It penalises them and perpetuates the situation."

Not all managers are so enlightened to appreciate assertive women who stand up for themselves. It is a risk not many are willing to take. Trina Liang-Lin, president of the Singapore Committee for UN Women, adds that women tend to believe they will be paid fairly for their effort at work. This usually results in them accepting what is offered without further negotiations.

"I used to think it an 'Asian' thing, but since knowing about the discrepancy in Hollywood - thanks to the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep - I now know it's not … Still, difficult honest talk in shiny offices needs to happen if one believes one isn't being fairly treated."

Both of these women practise what they preach. At different points in their career, they have had to go to their bosses to talk about pay inequality.

The problem with meritocracy and privilege

Since the study came out, Prof Dieleman has received responses from both sexes. The men, she says, tell her they can't believe this is happening despite all the research that points otherwise, while the women tell her the number of ways they have been overlooked for pay rises and promotions. However, she has received no reaction from anyone who had admitted to contributing to the gap. "It's hard to think of yourself as possibly discriminating based on gender. Yet, the evidence is overwhelming that it is happening … I am concerned that, in Singapore, one of our strengths paradoxically also leads to complacency."

Prof Dieleman is referring to our system of meritocracy, which supposedly rewards people based on their merit. When she presents data on the limited representation of women on boards, she often hears variations of the response: "But we are a meritocracy, so there is no problem."

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Yet, findings show that those who perceive their organisations as more meritocratic tend to be more biased as they question their own judgements less, she says. The issue of privilege and its ability to cloud a person's judgement is another factor worth examining. Again, this affects both men AND women.

For example, women privileged enough to be in workplaces where they are equally rewarded as their male peers sometimes don't think of the gender pay gap as an issue as hey, it doesn't apply to me. While they are entitled to their opinion, it dismisses the concerns of other women out there who are not so lucky.

Adds Prof Dieleman: "We are all privileged in some way and underprivileged in another, and this study is an important reminder not to allow privilege to cloud our judgements."

Glacial progress is still progress

Even as women's progress continues to be made at a glacial pace, one key piece of advice for aspiring women who want to climb the corporate ladder and be rewarded fairly for it is to be bold. After all, it is this year's International Women's Day theme, in case you missed it: be bold for change.

But this is no blind leap into the dark. It has to be tempered with wisdom to not only know your worth, but your limitations as well. Says Florence Ng, managing director and founder of Straits Talent: "Women should dream big and not let their ambitions be curbed, nor be afraid to ask for help … Be brave and be realistic."

Equal pay and greater female leadership representation will hardly be handed to women on a silver platter - it needs to be fought for. This means pushing back against patriarchal beliefs, complacency, and even our own apathy. A good start is simply to support fellow women in the workplace. Be allies, be mentors, be one another's sounding boards; building one another up will lift us all.

It is an uphill journey and there is a long way to go, but as we continue to keep running, I have hope that the generations after us will face a fairer, more equal society.

This article was first published on Mar 11, 2017. Get The Business Times for more stories.