Top image: dlyastokiv
I ended the month of March with an invitation by the Swedish Chamber of Commerce Singapore to the launch of their book, “100 Perspectives on Gender Equality in Singapore”, followed by a panel discussion about the state of gender diversity and equality in Singapore today.
According to SwedCham, the book is a collection of “100 perspectives mainly from men, but also focused on capturing the voices of both, men and women, of all walks of life and multiple generations.” The project, they explained, provides a critical mass of insight into how perceptions around women and gender balance are changing.
The collection of stories also moved a group of companies to pledge to double the paid paternity leave benefit in Singapore—from two weeks to four—paired with an open call to the broader business community to lend support. Curiously, the pledge was signed primarily by Swedish multinational companies such as ABB, AstraZeneca, Atlas Copco, Bolon x The Andrews Group, Electrolux, H&M, Mentor Media, Oriflame, and SKF, with Singapore corporations solely missing from signatories.
It comes as no surprise this glaring exclusion. I reckon in a mainly Asian-patriarchal country such as Singapore, the role of child-rearing is one often relegated to mothers, as seen in the huge disparity of current leave policies that accord mothers 16 weeks of paid maternity leave versus two weeks for fathers. Or it could very well be because companies worry about the financial trade-offs such a progressive move may incite.
The panel also took pains to reflect on the state of gender equality in the workplace, explain what a gender-diverse team means for them, and share some of their organisation’s best practices for hiring more diversely.
Still, the panel should have expounded that the issue of gender equality in the workplace is not simply about hiring a diverse range of identities in the company but about first ensuring the enactment of basic Human Resource policies that champion and encourage individual responsibilities. For instance, companies can be less restrictive with administratively mundane issues such as Medical Leave approvals or enshrining laws within the company’s ethos that respect and encourage a healthy work-life balance.
It’s no surprise, then, that a company that doesn’t believe in the simplest and most basic tenet of care at work—work-life balance, respecting and celebrating the diverse faiths in the team, caring about mental health and burnout, and supporting paternity leave—would find implementing policies that demand to hire diversely too ‘progressive’. Often, companies worry far too soon about catching up with the demands of a 21st-century workforce when it has yet to address even the most fundamental level of employee care at its core.
Of course, all these philosophical aspirations are for nought without unquestioning support from the top management, who should lead by example. Aspiration trickles down to actionable change, which translates to practical steps and administrative processes that would hopefully power practical execution amongst hiring managers and supervisors. Just as the rot starts from the top, so too does powerful social and cultural impact.
Still, there will be companies that refuse to adhere to the modern workplace demands of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). For such organisations, I say there’s little harm in leaving them behind. Let them be stuck under the metaphorical rock of a backward and dated work past—maybe, that’s for the best. The quicker we weed them out, the more pressure we can put on other companies on the precipice of change to hasten their DEI progress. Companies can no longer feign ignorance of such matters when its prevalence amongst job-seekers is guaranteed, and non-compliance puts them at a severe staffing disadvantage. Perhaps not immediately, but definitely in the foreseeable future.
I think there’s wiggle room for mindsets to change, cramped as it may seem at first sight. Here, knowledge is critical. Company leaders need to go out into the world and thoroughly educate themselves—talk to subject matter experts in the field, attend forums on DEI initiatives, speak to youth job-seekers—and be open to being wrong about past opinions.
And while forums such as the one by SwedCham are good places to network and speak to other like-minded folks, it is, essentially, one colossal echo chamber of people in agreement on the importance of gender diversity in the workplace. To effect discernible and effective change, people need to get angry and start demanding things be done differently—especially at the institutional level.
The recent white paper on Singapore women’s development should, if anything, encourage more DEI activists to speak up, canvas support, and chart actionable change at the government level. In rule-worship Singapore, it is the fastest way to nudge things along.
That’s not to say, pending government intervention, there’s nothing we can do on the ground now to effect change—hardly. The most practical place to start is in the HR office, where executives must champion hiring diversely, remunerating fairly, and constantly reminding upper management officers of the importance of diversity in the workplace. Still, if the best companies can do is to organise forums such as the one held by SwedCham, then I say it’s better than sitting on our laurels and pretending everything is business as usual.