3 things we can do to help working women in Singapore

PHOTO: Pexels

With lockdowns and work-from-home conditions still in place, it's clear that some aspects of the pandemic are here to stay a while longer. Some of these effects have seen a positive change in Singapore's labour force; for instance, more women are working in the country now more than ever.

However, the pandemic has also pulled underlying gender disparity issues to the front, like unpaid care work and high levels of retrenchment falling heavily on women.

As we shift into a post-pandemic society, we must be careful as remnants of the past carry on into the future of work.

In order to reshape the trajectory of women in Singapore's labour force, new policies and mindsets will need to be adopted in response to persistent, gender disparity that only became more tightly wound throughout the pandemic.

Here's three things that we can do to help working women in Singapore.

Split household chores at home

As schools remain shut and families work from home, the burden of domestic duties primarily falls on women, especially in Asian cultures that place significant value on gender roles. In this sense, women work two shifts — one of paid work and one of unpaid care work.

According to a recent study by Ipsos & United Women Singapore , only 24 per cent of men believe that their wives are solely responsible for household chores, while 43 per cent of women think of themselves as the main contributors of domestic work. Clearly, there is a gap in communication that needs to be bridged. In order to share the burden of unpaid care work, members of the family can consider the following techniques:

  • Create a list of all household responsibilities. This list can include anything from taking out the trash to making breakfast for the family.
  • If you have children, include them in the plan. If there are more hands to help at home, then include them in your planning.
  • Decide who wants to complete which task. During this step, ask yourself and your family what you don't mind doing, as well as what you may actually enjoy doing.
  • Divvy up responsibility with clear steps. There are multiple ways to go about sharing household chores. First, you can take turns completing a task, especially if it is one that neither person wants to do. Second, you can designate a few tasks to each person in the household.

If conflict arises, remember to avoid using direct blame and language. Substitute sentences that use "you" for sentences that use "we" or "I", which will keep your partner from getting defensive over their actions. You should also avoid complaining and instead ask for help directly.

Psychologists recommend that if you're feeling stressed out and are overwhelmed with a task, it will be more effective to ask your partner to help you with a chore than asking why your partner never picks up the slack.

Design a work environment that works for both women & employers

PHOTO: The Straits Times

As womens' priorities, needs, and work requirements transformed during the pandemic, so will the responsibility of companies to adjust their policies and expectations of their female employees.

When we take a look at female employment in Singapore, girls aged 15 to 24 and women aged 40 to 59 were hit the hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic. To bring these women back into the workforce, businesses will first need to address the reasons behind this loss of employment.

Compared to teenage boys who saw a 12.9 per cent decrease in employment between 2019 and 2020, teenage girls saw a 30.5 per cent decrease.

This decline in teenage female employment may have been due to elevated safety concerns paired with the expectation of men to be the breadwinners of the household.

Additionally, a limited job market during the Covid-19 pandemic likely played a huge role in the 12 per cent drop in employment rates for women aged 20 to 24.

As the country comes out of lockdown and the job market picks up a post-pandemic pace, opportunities for younger Singaporean women will naturally become more available. However, there are a few things that companies could do to encourage girls and women to rejoin the workforce, as well.

First, companies should uphold an inclusive environment that supports female safety. Harassment continues to be a concern for many women in the workplace, even online.

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According to multiple studies , a productive way to counteract this issue is by hiring more women throughout every level of the company.

In addition to anti-harassment policies and an engaging Human Resources department, there is power in equal gender representation. As these policies take effect, younger working women can feel more confident knowing they are as welcome and safe in the workplace as their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, a decline in employment rates for women aged 40 to 59 can be traced back to unpaid care work. As the age of having children continues to be pushed forward, it's no surprise that middle-aged Singaporean women make up the largest proportion of mothers in the country.

With this in mind, both working women and employers should be prepared to negotiate a work schedule that works for both of them.

The pandemic has revealed that the merging of work and home has added a unique pressure to women, especially working mothers. With this knowledge, companies should be open to flexible office hours that don't make women feel as if they have to choose between family and a career.

Female employees should be able to communicate their capacities and shifted priorities without the fear of getting fired.

This is especially true as a return to the office is on the horizon — companies should expect that employees with children may need additional time to shift gears or be ready to allow a continued WFH set up, as long as their productivity levels are sufficient.

Address the gender gap in male-dominated industries

The pandemic emphasized which industries could thrive and fail in unprecedented circumstances, with much loss falling on women.

Many industries that have a predominantly female workforce took the biggest hit during the pandemic, like arts, entertainment & recreation (AER); food services; and accommodation.

Conversely, Singapore's leading industries out of 2020 are those with low female representation, like manufacturing where women only make up 37 per cent of related occupations.

Now that we know that female-centered industries are more vulnerable than largely male-dominated industries, both women and companies can use this knowledge to inform post-pandemic hiring policies and career goals.

For companies, a straightforward solution is to allow WFH where possible, so that women can continue working while at home with children who are taking classes online.

However, some occupations may require hands-on work in the field, which likely led to the initial decline in employment of women aged 40 to 59 in industries like construction and manufacturing.

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Interestingly, women aged 60 to 64 saw the most employment growth in these industries, which reaffirms the idea that middle-aged women who have children were presented with a choice between career and their family during Covid-19.

Thus, as these industries enter post-pandemic phases of hiring, it's important to consider setting up child care centres within the workplace, as far as Covid-19 protocols allow it.

However, seeing as how pandemic lockdowns and strict Covid-19 policies remain in effect to some capacity in Singapore, another way to address the lack of female representation in male-dominated industries is by encouraging Singaporean girls to find jobs within them.

Female-dominated industries will likely come back as the country opens up; however, the pandemic showed just how vulnerable those occupations are.

Thus, if women seek to ground themselves in Singapore's economy, then reskilling for industries like manufacturing and construction is one step they can take to do so. Taking STEM courses in engineering or mathematics is the most straightforward way to break into these large industries.

However, companies, schools, and women already in these areas of work should continue their efforts to teach young girls about diverse opportunities within their fields.

Looking forward

PHOTO: Pixabay

We know that women are expected to be responsible for household tasks; that they're expected to prioritise their family over their career; and that they are expected to take on more female-centered industries. In response, both women and men should address these expectations.

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If there is house work, it should be divided between household members, accordingly. If a woman has children, she and her employer should be ready to negotiate working terms that benefit both parties.

And lastly, as the job market opens back up, women of all ages and hiring companies should consider the gender gap within a specific industry.

As women put themselves out there, a post-pandemic hiring market will need to accept that the pandemic has changed the way we live and work, and therefore needs to be met with space to rebuild what many women and families lost in the last year and a half.

This article was first published in ValueChampion.