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Articles > The Future of Working Women in Singapore

The Future of Working Women in Singapore

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Kah Jun
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In the past ten years, women have become more active participants in Singapore’s labour force. What is interesting to note, though, is that participation takes a hit when women reach their 30s and 40s. There are five per cent fewer women in the workforce than men in the 40s age group. The reason? Women spend these years focusing on their families. 

This change in focus becomes clearer when we look at those who decided to stop working. Of those not employed, around 81 per cent are not looking to rejoin the workforce. Based on the Ministry of Manpower’s Labour Force Survey in 2018, the most common reason was childcare (56.5 per cent of respondents).

However, the trend is shifting. More and more, women want to–and believe they can–dedicate time to building both their careers and their families. The pandemic’s global experiment with flexible working has proven that it’s possible. Enhanced maternity benefits and parental leaves have also helped women keep their jobs and families intact. Coupled with the growing size and influence of women in the labour force, businesses and the government will need to rethink how to shape policy to better support working women.

The state of working women

Today, women are getting married and having children at a later age than previous generations. This means they have more financial stability before starting a family. It also means that their professional responsibilities are generally bigger and more demanding at the moment that they choose to have kids. This creates an inner tug-of-war for women, one that is difficult to resolve. How can you balance managing a home and managing a job?

It’s not just the internal struggle. Women need to fight against perceptions in the workplace, too. It’s not uncommon to hear female employees keeping pregnancies a secret because they think it will affect their prospects for advancement or promotion. Women often fear that their being a mum leads people to think they won’t be as available for important, high-profile projects. While a ‘mummy track’ exists in the corporate world, not every mother wants to be on that track. 

Even if one gets to avoid the mummy track and goes about business as usual, there are moments when a mother needs to take time off for a child-related emergency. Leaving early to fetch the kids or taking time off is often met with some judgment from colleagues, whether real or perceived. This has implications on employee well-being, motivation, and productivity.

A woman’s decision to have children and continue working also has real-world financial implications. Similar to labour force participation rates, a gender pay gap surfaces around the age women start bearing children. According to the MOM, this pay gap appears in the 30s, and often continues for the rest of a working woman’s life.

Conditions are even worse for mums that choose to take a break and leave the workforce for a while. While finding a job after a sabbatical is already tough, reentering the labour market as a mum proves to be extra challenging. Anecdotal evidence points towards a wariness of employers towards hiring mothers, as they think mums will continually take time off work using childcare leave. By law, mothers are entitled to take these days off, but some managers don’t necessarily like it. Having a CV gap also brings about a harder pay gap to overcome.

Even entrepreneurship takes a hit. Women make up just a little over a quarter of all business owners in Singapore. While there are more male entrepreneurs now than there were in previous years, the number of new female entrepreneurs have been dropping yearly.  

All these factors surrounding women in the workforce trickle down into a well-documented reality–only one-third of all business leadership roles in the country are held by women.

Women present unrealised potential

With all the abovementioned hurdles, it’s no surprise that there are fewer women than men in the workplace. But not having women in the workforce and running businesses is creating a lost opportunity. 

According to a McKinsey Global Institute research, getting more women into the workforce can mean a net growth of S$26 billion to the country’s GDP. If the country gets as many female-owned businesses as male-owned businesses, Singapore can see as much as S$95 billion more in its economy. Getting more women working and running businesses presents huge economic potential, one whose effects will trickle down to all levels of society. 

It’s essential to get women to work and bring them into positions that can make a difference. The same report from McKinsey has shown that diverse management teams tend to outperform on profitability and value creation. Companies in the top 25 per cent when it comes to gender-diverse executive teams tend to have above-average profitability compared to the bottom 25 per cent. These leading companies also have better earnings compared to peers. All these differences are especially pronounced when supported by strong female participation in the labour force. 

The numbers back it up – supporting female workers and entrepreneurs results in greater value creation across the entire economy and society. So how do we get there?

Bridging the expectation-reality gap

One reason why women in Singapore struggle to become more active in the workforce is due to traditional Asian beliefs about gender roles. Women are often expected to take care of domestic matters first, then professional matters second.

Changing mindsets requires that the conversation moves from just policy and practice into values and beliefs. From a young age, children need to be taught gender equality to #BreakTheBias. This takes time and a lot of intentionality. In the shorter term, though, fostering conversations on gender equality across demographics can create safe spaces for women to speak up and engage more actively. Companies can also start creating environments that empower women to go beyond traditional gender roles.

As women become more involved in the workforce, society and businesses need to adapt and do away with the stigma associated with being a working mom or a working woman. Below are some actionable ways companies can support women.

  1. Provide flexible working options for working parents. The pandemic has shown that work-from-home arrangements for dual-income families have balanced the domestic workload. More men have begun taking responsibility for childcare. Continuing in this direction can lighten the load on mothers.
  2. Expand maternity and paternity leave benefits to allow for shared caregiving. Online entertainment giant Netflix has provided new parents – both mothers and fathers–one year of fully paid parental leave. Employees can return part-time within this period, or break up the leave as needed. This allows families to balance the time away from work across both genders, and allow both mothers and fathers to embrace parenthood fully.
  3. Provide gender-neutral mentorship to women. Procter & Gamble Singapore’s mentorship programmes involve men as essential allies to women. This helps remove unspoken bias and helps women progress in their careers in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have.
  4. Have women reskill or build skills to help them enter traditionally male-dominated industries. Financial technology company Revolut introduced programming language Python to help employees gain valuable skills outside their current roles. 
  5. Give women a seat in the boardroom. The Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) created an initiative called BoardAgender, which aims to get more women into the boardroom and into senior leadership roles.

Balancing the scales through entrepreneurship

Outside of employment, creating structures that help women start, build, or continue businesses can also help with gender equity and diversity. Organisations like the Women’s Entrepreneur Club (WE Club) can help women develop networks and critical support systems in the entrepreneur community. Supporting women that inherit family businesses also help change the tradition of simply handing these businesses to men, and allow women to take a more active role in building the family legacy. 

To help women get into entrepreneurship, we need to understand what keeps them from taking the first step. Below are the more common reasons women shy away from building businesses, and how to address them.

  1. According to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs, women tend to perceive their lack of financial knowledge to be a barrier to entry for entrepreneurship. Programs like The FinLab Online help even out this disparity by training budding entrepreneurs in financial matters.
  2. A knowledge gap in strategy and technology also prevents women from pursuing entrepreneurship. Programs like The FinLab’s Digital Mumpreneur and resources like BizSmart can help aspiring businesswomen gain knowledge and confidence.
  3. Other common barriers are limited access to markets (B2B connections) and access to financing (capital). A study from Accenture showed that it takes a month longer for Singapore’s women-owned businesses to raise capital compared to men. Women-owned businesses’ only received 1.3 per cent of venture capital (VC) funding over the last ten years. Companies can create women-friendly programs that allow greater access to markets and finances.
  4. Sadly, gender bias still acts as a huge deterrent. As many as 68 per cent of respondents from the Accenture study highlighted balancing work and family as a significant challenge. Other challenges include navigating negative perceptions, gender bias, and a perceived lack of credibility. Changing this involves changing mindsets through open conversations around gender and equality.

Providing access to training, funding opportunities, and network connections will help more women take the leap into entrepreneurship. However, more structural changes to the business ecosystem are also needed to further bolster female participation in business. Large multinationals, banks and financial institutions, governments, and NGOs can all do their part by creating support programmes and financing mechanisms that favour women. For example, UOB was featured in the 2021 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index (GEI) for the third consecutive year for its commitment to maintaining an inclusive workplace. Ample and equal opportunities were given to women employees to climb the career ladder. 

A brave new world for women

Creating structural change to support working women is a huge task but not impossible. The government has started doing its part by facilitating conversations around gender roles. Companies are pitching in by providing systems that allow for more flexible working. Work-life balance can be had if everyone rallies behind the cause. This is true not just for employees but for entrepreneurs, too.

If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, numerous resources are available to help you overcome hurdles and get your dreams off the ground. Sign up for The FinLab’s Digital Mumpreneurs Programme to find out more.