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Singapore Government

Speech By Minister Of State Sun Xueling At Women@ST Engineering Networking Event

Speech By Minister Of State Sun Xueling At Women@ST Engineering Networking Event

Published On
25 Oct 2021

Mr Vincent Chong, Group President & CEO

Distinguished Guests and Speakers

Ladies and Gentlemen

1.         Good afternoon. I thank ST Engineering for having me here as we discuss this important topic of “Success in both worlds – work and family.”

2.         These are the two worlds that many women see ourselves toggling between. Even if you are not married, I mean, you are a daughter, a sister; and we have many family responsibilities, perhaps as caregivers. So I know all too well that many women have to juggle their responsibilities in these two worlds. And many of us talk to each other or seek support in the workplace to see how we can navigate these two worlds better. Regardless of whether such support is from the Government, from workplaces, or from families, we are all united in our efforts to see how we can better support women in their endeavors.

3.         We had recently concluded our national Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development. It was kicked off by Minister Shanmugam in September last year. I think women’s progress in Singapore has been a steady affair. If you look at it, in the 1960s, we have the Women’s Charter, whereby it enshrined the equal rights of men and women in marriage, it enshrined monogamy. It made sure that maintenance and protection of women are clearly stated in the Women’s Charter, which was a milestone in Singapore’s modern history. And that really is the cornerstone of how our society views women and how we want to continue to protect our women.

4.         It has been many years since the Women’s Charter was passed in 1961 and since then, many things have changed. Singapore women have made much progress over the years in terms of educational qualifications, literacy, and participation in the workplace. I think when we speak to women now, what women are looking for is fairer opportunities at work to be the best that they can be; and at the same time, greater support for them to balance their responsibilities between the workplace and the family.

Work and family issues are key concerns for women

5.         Looking at the feedback that we have gathered from the Conversations on Women’s Development in the past year, where we have heard from more than 6,000 participants, young and old, from all walks of life, we see that:

a.         About 37% of the feedback dealt with how women felt about workplace opportunities. Many women shared about how they hoped that there will be more leadership positions made available to them – that there are no glass ceilings. Some of them shared their concerns about workplace discrimination some share about workplace harassment, some also talked about better gender pay – not to have too much disparity. Some also spoke about a greater desire for their employers to be more supportive when it comes to family leave, and also better support structures – be it mentorships and other avenues for them to further develop themselves.

b.         Another 22% of the feedback dealt with caregiving. As I mentioned earlier, women may see themselves in a couple of caregiving roles. Sometimes they have to take care of their elderly parents, or mothers have to take care of their children; sometimes they have siblings with disabilities or relatives with certain impairments. Oftentimes you see that it is the female, the woman in the household who unfortunately has to double up as the caregiver. But everyone’s time is limited right? Participants share that when they spend more effort in caregiving, what it may mean is that it takes time and their focus away from their workplace. For some of them who might not have the support they need - for example, they may not have a nurse staying at home with them or a foreign domestic worker - they may feel very burdened having to both juggle what they are experiencing at the workplace, as well as what is happening in the family.

c.         Following from that, about 20% of the feedback was about the mindsets around women and how we think of women in our society. Some shared that even though we are already very progressive as a nation, some of us may still hold traditional stereotypes regarding women. For instance, they may feel that women should spend a lot of time at home, or caregiving should be their responsibility – and if the man helps out, that’s great.

d.         There is feedback that sometimes women might be boxed in, hemmed in by these traditional stereotypes. I mean if these are real choices that women make, then it’s all fine and good. If it is a fair choice that is presented to women, that you can choose to spend time at home or if you want to go to work, that’s fine – with the spouse as well. I think women value these honest conversations and having these fair choices. But if it is positioned to them such that actually they don’t have a choice – if the conversation is around “You’re a woman, surely, it is your role and your job to be taking care of your child” or for instance “if your child falls sick, then naturally and surely, shouldn’t it be the mum’s job to look after the child, take leave from work rather than the husband”. I think when these mindsets and stereotypes about women arise, what happens is that the women feel somewhat stressed by it. They may or may not tell their husbands about it, but it takes a toll on their mental wellbeing. I think this is especially pronounced with the COVID-19 situation, because the opportunity is there for women to work from home – that is the default option that the government has presented. But when women work from home and should their child also be studying from home, home-based learning. What I think many mothers find out, is that they somehow have to toggle between doing what they are doing over Zoom - for instance what we are doing now - and having to keep an eye on their child at the same time.

•         Actually, just now when I was talking to you, my child opened the door and wanted to come in. It might not have been obvious to you, but I actually had my hand up, and I was gesturing to her to basically say “wait, because mummy is on Zoom”. I’m sure this is something many of you would have encountered before as well.

•         If you are in a supportive work environment, then it is all well and good. But there can be instances when the woman doesn’t feel quite so supported at work. In that instance when my child wanted to walk in, I must tell you that, I felt some stress. Luckily, I’m amongst friends here, and I don’t have my boss online here, and my boss is not going to be saying “hey, aren’t you supposed to be at work”. I think in the COVID environment, women have shared feedback that they feel that their responsibilities and the time they need to spend between workplace and home is increasingly blurred, and it adds on stress to them. So that’s why there was quite a bit of feedback from women regarding our society’s view about women’s role in our society at home and the workplace and if it is a fair stereotype to have, a fair mindset to have.  If this is not something that we think should be the default model, then how do we move forward from it?”

Partnerships

6.         I would like to offer some possibilities for us to consider. Firstly, what is important is communication. For those of us who are married, we know that communication between husband and wife is important. We each have different strengths and capabilities. If the mum is better at taking care of the children, because you do a better job at cooking or buying clothes for the child, and this is something you love to do, then by all means go ahead and do it. But if this is something you feel that your husband can also contribute towards, then we hope that the men can sit down and have a honest conversation with us and listen to what we are saying and also try to contribute towards the household chores. While there is no set equation as to what the distribution of work at home should be, I think many women hope for more honest conversations, which is tied to what I mentioned about stereotypes. Because if the overriding mindset is that the women’s place is in the kitchen, then there is no possibility of us even having an honest conversation to begin with, because we have two entirely different perspectives and starting points.

7.         The second point is about capabilities. This is quite an interesting point, because I spoke to the men as well who participated in the Conversations - about 25 to 30% of the 6,000 participants were men. Some of them shared that they would like to be helpful around the house, but they do not know how. When you ask them, they said “We didn’t learn when we were children, we didn’t learn at home, and we were not taught that in school.”

a.         It was an interesting conversation that reminds us that as parents, when we educate our children, and we educate them through our actions and our words, what are we really saying about gender equality? It starts at home. If at home, what the child sees is a certain power dynamic between his or her father and mother, then the child may grow up thinking that that is the way that life and the world should be – that the men is dominant and the women subservient. Or in the worst-case scenario, that men can be violent towards women. Or that the split of household responsibilities is such that mummy does everything at home and papa goes out to bring the bacon back home. If these are the things and the actions that the child sees, then he or she may grow up thinking that that is the way that the world should be.

b.         At the Ministry of Education, we take this very seriously too. Part of our Character and Citizenship Education deals with discussing family roles, what is a fair and equitable distribution of roles, and strengths and capabilities within the family context. Our teachers are also mindful that when we use examples in the classroom, we try not to stereotype.

•         For instance, there was some feedback about advertisements. For example, washing powder, like Mr Dynamo, there is always a man in a lab coat and goggles.

•         Some people who are more extreme may question why it must be “firemen”, and not “firefighter”. I don’t want to go into semantics here. But it is a reminder to us that sometimes we should be conscious of the language we use, because that can inset certain ideas, especially into young minds. 

8.         For myself, I enrolled my child when she was four years old, into soccer class, thinking that I was a very progressive mum. She went to class and was one of the two girls among seven other boys. I faithfully brought my child there on weekends, watched her, and after a while, realised she wasn’t really enjoying herself – she wasn’t running quite as fast, and the boys were quite rude. So I asked her if she wanted to continue, and she told me that she didn’t like football. I think we have to take into consideration what our children’s preferences are. While I want to be very progressive and give her equal and fair opportunities, if it is not something that she enjoys, then I think that I shouldn’t also push my luck with her. What I’m trying to say is that, I guess as parents, we want to present as many options and opportunities to our children, as much as possible. But we also need to remind ourselves not to unnecessarily box them in and to truly understand what their passions are; and not to have these stereotypes constrain us in how we present options to them.

9.         The very last thing I want to talk about is culture. I was very impressed by what Vincent shared about the many initiatives that ST Engineering has, for instance the MentorConnect programme and the family leave policies. He also shared at the start that 21% of ST Engineering’s workforce comprise women. I know this is a number that can be worked on, but I think the fact that you are actually thinking about it, is already a step in the right direction. Sometimes when you talk to companies, if it is not even in their language, if it is not even something that the leaders are thinking about, then I think there is a little bit cause for worry. Because it might suggest that there is not much thought given to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. So I think what I heard just now about the culture we are trying to imbibe in our workplace environment, I think it’s a very positive one. And we are trying to ensure through the conversations we are having, that this culture of being inclusive or being diverse, of giving women fair and equal opportunities is something that permeates throughout our society, whether or not it’s in the community, it’s at home, it’s in the workplaces or it’s in our schools, I think this is something that we all collectively want to work towards.

10.         With that, those are my opening remarks, which I hope could “抛砖引玉” – which means something like I throw a brick and hope that we get some jade out of it. I look forward to a robust discussion. Thank you.

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