A politician in Singapore shares how female jobseekers face ‘unique struggles’ — a worrying problem amidst the recession
Is legislation the answer to promote gender equity at work?
Louis Ng, a member of parliament in Singapore last week suggested that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) enforce action against illegal interview questions and legislate flexible working arrangements to close existing gender gaps.
He said that a critical label we “need to remove” to build genuinely inclusive workplaces is that of being a mother. This is especially crucial amidst a deep recession.
“Our unemployment rate is at its highest in a decade,” Ng said. “In this economy we need to do our best to help Singaporeans find new jobs. But some will find it harder than others — women in particular will face unique struggles.”
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He believes that concrete labour laws and enforcement may be the way to push employers here to simply do better.
“We need to legislate, to make it illegal for employers to ask interviewees and employees about their marital status and whether they plan to have children,” he said.
“Our TAFEP guidelines are clear and state the questions related to marital status and family responsibilities, that should not be asked during an interview. But these guidelines are clearly not being followed.”
He said Singapore should “go beyond guidelines” and formally legislate it, just like how several countries have done so, including Australia, Canada, China, Hong Kong, UK and the US.
He also suggested that MOM legislated all employees have the “right to access” flexi-work arrangements. The benefits of the arrangement to promote better balance have also become clearer this year, he said.
“This pandemic has given fathers more opportunities to be involved with childcare,” he said. “It has enabled both men and women to feel they can contribute at work and at home equally, and this change is good.
“We should legislate this flexibility to work from home, so that we can facilitate this change, and help break this gender stereotype.”
Clear employer bias
During the parliamentary speech, he shared several examples of the existing stereotype around fixed gender roles in Singapore.
- Labelled as ‘mother’ first
Ng said one resident shared how during an interview, the HR personnel called her a mother “before they even called me by my name”. Being from the recruitment sector, she called such stories “a dime, a dozen”.
- ‘Extremely qualified’ but turned away
Another example involved a working mother with a daughter under the age of one. When she applied for the job, they told her that while she was ‘extremely qualified’ for the role, they needed someone who could travel on short notice and was therefore ‘unencumbered’.
“She said, ‘nobody asked if I was willing to travel, even with a young child,” Ng said. “‘They just assumed. Unencumbered also gave the impression that my child is a burden.’”
- Prefer male candidate over working mother
Ng also relayed a story where a female jobseeker was told by the hiring manager that while he “is not a sexist”, he would choose a male candidate over her because she had three children — and may have a fourth child in future.
- Told she ‘shouldn’t get pregnant’
One resident told Ng during a final interview with a local bank, the employer ‘blatantly’ told her she shouldn’t get pregnant if she took the job. HR was sitting in the interview as well.
“Many women are second guessed for no other reason than being a woman and a mother,” Ng said. “One of the main causes of this problem [gender gap] is the assumption that women are supposed to take care of children.”
The problem with fixed gender roles
Ng’s observations were astute and aligned with existing studies.
A recent one by the Center for Creative Leadership found that gender role expectations are strong drivers impacting leadership pathways at work. About 70% of women and 48% of men agreed that society expects women to behave in ways which create roadblocks to women’s leadership success.
These expectations are particularly strong around family responsibilities — especially in Asia. For instance, if something happens at home, women are expected to take time off from work, while men must focus on their career. The bias affects both men and women.
Balaka Niyazee, gender equality sponsor and VP at P&G Korea told HRD that this gender myth around family care being a “woman’s thing”.
“This is very deep rooted in society and our culture,” Niyazee said. “The myth says that if there was a time a woman had to make a choice between amazing career growth and demanding household responsibility, she should choose the latter.”
This myth and stereotype also hurts working fathers as it assumes that men don’t want to participate in sharing household responsibility.
“There are more and more men I know who want to be seen and present where it matters for them,” she said. “They want to be a part of their child’s upbringing and truly partner with their spouse to create a great family life. They want dual careers.”