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The battle for gender equality has to come home to roost

The battle for gender equality has to come home to roost

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 24 Sep 2020
Author: Tham Yuen-C

Nearly 60 years after the Women's Charter emancipated women in Singapore, giving them equal opportunity in school and at the workplace, it's time for gender equality to return where it really matters - the home.

On Feb 15, 1959, the seeds of gender equality in Singapore were sown at the fields of Hong Lim Green. The People's Action Party (PAP) had kicked off a series of pre-election roadshows on the windy and rainy day to explain the party's programmes and policies.

Then party chairman Toh Chin Chye said to people gathered at the field that the party stood for "equality of opportunity for education and employment to all Singapore citizens".

Days later, going into more details about the PAP's policy statements, Dr Toh said the emancipation of women would play an important role in nation building, and announced that a law on monogamous marriage would be introduced to free women from "the binds of feudalism and conservatism".

An extensive education campaign on the rights of women would also be rolled out to "free working-class women from domestic drudgery".

"We shall foster the principle, if necessary by legislation, that there shall be equality of women with men in all spheres and we shall encourage them to come forward to play a leading role in politics, administration, business and industry, education and in other spheres," pledged the PAP.


These promises eventually crystallised in the Women's Charter, finally passed into law in 1961, before Singapore's independence.

And then, on Sunday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam announced a comprehensive review of issues affecting gender inequality, that can be said to be a continuation of the journey started some 60 years ago.

The review, to be led by three PAP women Members of Parliament - who will consult widely - will culminate in a White Paper to be delivered in the first half of next year. It aims to bring about a cultural and mindset change on gender equality and respect for women.

Explaining the initiative, Mr Shanmugam said recent incidents of voyeurism on campuses and debates on the penalties the perpetrators received had set him thinking about gender equality. While Singapore's penalties are stiff compared with those in many other jurisdictions, people had chaffed at the mitigating factors that factored into sentencing, such as whether the perpetrator had a bright future ahead.

A more philosophical, fundamental way of approaching the problem must be to seek to instil gender equality as a fundamental value, said Mr Shanmugam. "They need to be taught from a very early age that boys and girls are to be treated equally, and, very importantly, with respect. It has to be a deep mindset change."


The impact of the Women's Charter on Singapore in the early years was immediate and significant. It paved the way for wives to be accorded full and equal rights as their husbands under the law and protection within marriage, at a time when many married men had concubines. It also codified women's personal rights, allowing them to own property and sue in their own name even if they were married.

This set the foundation for women to receive equal education and work opportunities.

"At the macro level, the enactment of the Women's Charter may have played a pivotal part in raising the status of women and supporting their economic participation," wrote National University of Singapore (NUS) Emeritus Professor of Law Leong Wai Kum in Fifty Years And More Of The Women's Charter, published in the Singapore Journal of Legal Studies in 2008.

In her article, she noted that in 1957, a census year, 21.6 per cent of the total female population aged 15 years and above were economically active. This rose to 29.5 per cent in 1970 and 44.3 per cent in 1980. Now, 73.3 per cent of women in the prime working age of 25 to 64 are working, according to figures from last year.

Today, the women in higher education outnumber men by a margin of about 15 per cent, and the gender pay gap is closing - at 6 per cent in 2018 after taking into account age and occupations, down from 8.8 per cent in 2002.

While efforts continue in the public domain to help women gain parity with men in school and at the workplace, the next big frontier in the battle for gender equality lies in a more intimate sphere: the home.

Mothers spend three hours and 51 minutes directly engaged with their child on weekdays, compared with one hour and 44 minutes for fathers, according to the Singapore Longitudinal Early Development Study conducted by NUS' Centre for Family and Population Research.

Women also do a disproportionate share of the housework, with studies elsewhere indicating that they spend about one hour more a day on housework compared with men.


Ironically, some policies that are pro-family reinforce those stereotypes. For example, mothers are entitled to 16 weeks of paid leave after childbirth.

The time allows new mothers to recuperate. But such maternity leave also contributes to trapping women in the traditional roles ascribed to them by society - that of stay-at-home mum and main caregiver of the child.

While women are no doubt grateful for the time with their children, taking on a larger share of child-caring during the early months or years of a child's life can mean that children become more accustomed to their mothers, and also set expectations in families and entrench norms in society that women should be the main caregiver of children.

Experience elsewhere suggests having parental leave reserved for fathers creates a positive effect on the long-term involvement of men in household work and childcare.

In Quebec, Canada, fathers had been reluctant to take parental leave in the early 2000s, even though they could share this leave with mothers. But after the Canadian government put in place a programme of non-transferable paternity leave of five weeks in 2006, take-up rates of such leave jumped by 250 per cent. These days, over 80 per cent of Quebec fathers take their paternity leave.

Compare this with Singapore, which has two weeks of non-transferable paternity leave for fathers, who are also allowed to share part of their wives' maternity leave.

Despite the Government's ongoing efforts to get men more involved in raising their children, numbers by the Ministry of Social and Family Development show that the take-up rate for paternity leave was 35 per cent in 2018, compared with 53 per cent in 2017 and 47 per cent in 2016. In those three years, more than 94 per cent of fathers did not take up any shared leave.

In some countries, governments offer incentives for fathers to take up shared parental leave. Families in Sweden, for instance, can get a gender-equality financial bonus for every day of such leave shared equally. The bonus can go up to US$1,900 (S$2,600) per month when both parents share the generous 16 months of paid leave equally.

Studies have shown changes in social norms in countries where fathers have played a larger share in childcare at the start of their child's life. In Quebec households, fathers who took paternity leave spent a higher percentage of time on household work compared with those who did not, and this pattern continued long after their leave period ended.

The benefits of shared parenthood extend beyond the home, and also has an intrinsic link to gender equality in the workplace.

A study of German couples found that allowing both men and women to have flexible working arrangements to care for their children boosted the wages of both parents, but especially for mothers, reported The Guardian newspaper in 2018.


So what more can be done to shift attitudes here?

One area the review can look into is societal expectations on men.

Sexual division of labour is harmful to women, and men as well, and how men behave is also profoundly shaped by the social and cultural expectations of masculinity.

Physical toughness, financial independence and emotional stoicism are just some of the social norms expected of men.

In an online survey by consumer research firm Milieu, 80 per cent of men who were polled cited a successful career and being the breadwinner of the family as expectations they had of themselves, indicating they had internalised the social norms.

But attitudes are changing. A younger generation of Singaporean men are shedding the attitude that childcare is emasculating, and these days, having changed soiled diapers and waking up to bottle-feed their babies are worn as badges of honour even among the "bros". Younger parents like these are more likely to break out of stereotypes and not raise their children into gendered roles where girls do chores and pick up after their brothers.

Organisations like the Centre for Fathering have also sought to increase men's involvement in childcare.

Such efforts are laudable, but on their own may be hard-pressed to overturn the social conventions that shape what is considered normal or acceptable behaviour for men. Employers, too, need to come on board and shift workplace norms. Some men may be keen to take paternity leave to change diapers - but do not do so due to work pressures, real or imagined.

The expectation of men as the main financial provider in the family thus results in a stigma being associated with men caring full-time for children, reinforcing social norms about gender roles both ways.

The life and marriage of the late American jurist and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last Friday, aged 87, is a good example of how a man's willingness to break barriers at home had allowed his wife to break barriers at the workplace. At a time when housework and child-rearing were still very much considered a woman's responsibility, Mr Martin Ginsburg, a successful lawyer himself, shared domestic responsibilities and was the cook at home.

Justice Ginsburg had said in her Supreme Court confirmation hearing: "I have had the great good fortune to share life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation, a man who believed at age 18 when we met, and who believes today, that a woman's work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man's."

While the coronavirus pandemic is said to have set women back in their pursuit of gender equality, it has also provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the millions of men forced to work from home to see just how difficult it is to balance work, caregiving responsibilities and household chores.

The hope is that this will spark a mindset change. But to help them along, perhaps it is time also to look at how men can be armed with the confidence to break out of the stereotypes that they themselves are subjected to, so that they too can choose to be the kind of supportive husband that Mr Ginsburg was.

But of course the issue of gender equality cannot depend on individual men changing their mindsets. Family policies, too, must support gender equality, including the division of roles at home.


Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.


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