Picture gender inequality in the workplace and the first thing that comes to mind is probably the gender pay gap. After all, it’s still considerably problematic: in January last year, a report by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) found that in 2018 the unadjusted pay gap was at 16.3 per cent, while adjusted pay gap was at 6 per cent or $324 a month.
And even though the study noted that the gap in Singapore is lesser than the latest available figures from countries such as the United States (8 per cent), Canada (7.7 per cent to 8.3 per cent) and China (18.3 per cent), the World Economic Forum ranked Singapore at 54th place on its 2020 Global Gender Gap Index.
But here’s the thing: Inequality in the workplace extends beyond pay – there are several other aspects to it that are hardly talked about. (Check out the key findings from Her World’s 2020 gender equality survey.) Here are six of the top struggles women still face at work.
“I was afraid to report sexual harassment because I wasn’t sure of the repercussions”
According to our survey from a few months ago that involved over 3,000 women, close to a quarter of respondents have either been a victim or witness to sexual harassment in the workplace. The results are in line with findings by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).
In January this year, Aware and market research firm Ipsos released results of a nationally representative survey that included both genders. When asked, “Have you been sexually harassed in the workplace within the last five years?”, one in five responded in the affirmative.
More significantly, when specific harassment situations were described to them, two in five reported having experienced such behaviours. This shows that people aren’t always aware of what sexual harassment is, and could have been subjected to troubling behaviours without knowing it.
“Forty per cent of workers is certainly a significant figure, and tells us that workplace sexual harassment is indeed a pervasive and urgent problem in Singapore,” says Shailey Hingorani, head of Research and Advocacy at Aware. “The survey also found that only three in 10 victims actually filed official reports. This shows that we cannot rely on official reported cases alone to gauge prevalence.”
Our survey showed that 73 per cent who were either victims or witnesses of sexual harassment did something about it –including talking to someone outside of work and to a colleague about it. Only 19 per cent reported it to a manager or to HR. A lesser percentage actually confronted their perpetrators.
But why did the 27 per cent not do anything about it at all? Fear of being labelled as “difficult” or “overly sensitive” and of jeopardising their career were listed as top reasons, as well as lack of proof and hopelessness.
“Many of the respondents who did not make a report wanted to forget about the incident, or did not think it was severe enough. Some felt that they did not have enough evidence of the harassment, while others feared reputational damage or retaliation from the perpetrator or the company,” says Shailey. She adds that the victims may also feel apprehensive about embarking on complicated and lengthy investigative procedures, which could traumatise them further.
And while it is possible for them to seek remedies against harassers under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), it requires filing an official report, and not all workers wish to pursue legally punitive action. Also, POHA does not place any obligation on employers to implement protective and preventive measures.
“This leaves victims in a position of vulnerability, even if punitive action is taken. In our survey, we found that in two in five cases where reports were made, the harasser was reassigned or dismissed by the company. But in another one in five of such cases, the harasser faced no consequences despite evidence of harassment.”
“I feel that being a woman poses additional challenges to my pursuit of personal goals and interests, compared to a man”
A high percentage of the women surveyed agreed that it was exceptionally difficult being a working woman. This is especially so for those in the age groups of 30 to 39. Despite there being little difference across segments with regards to job positions and monthly personal income, the female identity posed as a barrier for many women both at work and home-–whether it was gender discrimination at work or getting enough mental, emotional and physical support from their partners.
“I am often delegated “household” tasks simply because I’m a woman”
Anything that doesn’t contribute to your performance evaluation and career advancement is a non- promotable task–these include organising and making reservations for a team lunch, filling in for a colleague, or serving on a low- ranking committee. The survey found that these “housekeeping chores” were usually delegated to female employees.
This usually stems from the outdated belief that it’s a woman’s job to take charge of “household” tasks. But taking up these unrewarded office duties not only forces a female employee to redirect her attention from her assigned duties, it perpetuates the expectation that this is a responsibility she should continue to take care of. Also, these tasks can take up a lot of time: Something that takes 20 minutes a week actually amounts to more than 16 hours a year.
And women don’t just have more “household” tasks at work, but also at home: a recent study found that women spent almost double the usual amount of time on household chores during the circuit breaker, while men increased their time on the chores by about one-third.
“Because I am a mother, I was made to feel that I wasn’t contributing enough at work”
There’s also the issue of women being considered less devoted to their jobs or less competent because they have childcare responsibilities.
Among the working mothers surveyed, a majority of them between 30 and 39 years of age said that they were made to feel like they were not contributing enough in the workplace. However, the figure was lower for those aged 40 and above–likely because their children were older and did not require as much attention.
“It will take concerted effort to move Singapore towards a society that allows women equal opportunities at work, and men to play a more equal role in family life,” says Shailey. She adds that offering equal parental leave regardless of gender will ensure that all employees feel comfortable taking the full amount of leave to which they are entitled.
“This way, fathers would be able to pick up their share of household and caregiving responsibilities so that mothers can no longer be penalised at work. Employers can also support new mothers by embracing them as valuable employees, and properly acknowledging and compensating team members who provide coverage for colleagues on maternity leave.”
Also, working mothers in higher job positions were made to feel that they were not contributing enough in the workplace, likely due to heavier workload and more responsibilities. Additionally, many of them had given up career opportunities for their families.
“I feel penalised for planning to have children”
It doesn’t matter if it’s inappropriate for employers (potential or otherwise) to ask about a woman’s childbearing plans. The fact is that many of them still do it–a quarter of respondents indicated that they have been asked about childbearing plans by a recruiter or potential employer.
The good news is, you’re not obligated to reveal your plans. Among those surveyed, 28 per cent of them chose not to reveal their childbearing plans to the recruiter or potential employer. Fortunately, there seems to be no huge impact of childbearing plans on job opportunities. Among the respondents who had childbearing plans and indicated as such, 62 per cent were offered a position that they accepted.
“I go into the office even when I’m experiencing period pains because I don’t want my colleagues to think less of me”
As period cramps are not typically regarded as a physical ailment, many female employees don’t take sick leave even if they’re in pain–45 per cent of those between the ages of 20 to 29 said that they’re still very likely to go to work in spite of extreme period discomfort. The sentiment was also echoed by 41 per cent between the ages of 30 and 39. It is likely that women don’t bring up their physical discomforts, no matter how legitimate, because they are either uncomfortable telling their supervisors about it, or feel like they’re not entitled to sick leave for issues not shared by both genders.
Real change starts with legislation. Until then, it’s up to us to call out inequality when we see it. Companies too, can help effect change on a mezzo-level with inclusive policies.
“Employment policies that support family life and promote gender equality would enable all workers, including men, to better juggle work and care. When employees feel like their contributions are supported and valued beyond their office doors they also record greater job satisfaction and are less likely to leave their jobs,” says Shailey.
This article first appeared in the March 2021 issue of Her World.