EMBEDDING DEEP-SEATED VALUES
I was pleased when the Singapore government announced that it will be conducting a review on shaping mindsets on how girls and women are to be regarded and treated. What is more heartening is that the review will take a more philosophical approach in embedding deep-seated values that ultimately shape the minds, attitudes and behaviours of Singaporeans on women-related matters.
This paper is a reflection of my aspiration for women at the workplace and at home with their families despite the fact that gender gaps, stereotypes and biases in other domains remain. They say, “No one is an island”. Thus, ensuring that women are given their due rights, consideration and respect in private or public will definitely lead to a positive impact that will uplift families and societies in general.
I hope the review will take into consideration the entire system of shifting mindsets of not just individuals but communities, corporations and the government itself. The basis of this mindset change is in how we view short- and long-term gains which will inevitably change how women are treated at work and within families. My hope is that the review will eventually lead to an overhaul in our mindsets, policies, conventions, systems and structures in order to achieve a value-laden society.
THE INCULCATION OF VALUES
First, let us review the circle of life and how values are developed. Values are formed from birth where the infant internalises the values and behaviours of his caregivers. Marriage and family are the most vital social-educational institutions for children where virtues such as respect for everyone including women, are instilled.
In the first three years of a child’s life, his brain forms one million neural connections per second (Babysparks, 2019). During this time, social and emotional competences develop.
Constant and quality interactions and loving relationships with parents or caregivers provide a stable platform for the child. It is not just quality but quantity that counts in the building block years. This is a long-term gain worthy of our immediate attention.
STANDARDS OF LIVING & WORK ENVIRONMENT
The steep costs of living in Singapore have made it harder for couples to start a family on a comfortable financial footing. It is almost unthinkable for a parent to be home with their child for the first few months after childbirth, much less the first few years.
The competitive economic impact on society today has seen the rise of dual-income families. Career advancements and financial pursuits are key factors attributing to women marrying later, overriding the desire to get married and start a family. One main motivation driving the return of women back to work after a career break is also the financial aspects (Robert Walters, n.d.).
The social implications of being a wife, mother and a member of the labour force are very challenging. More women are working today as reflected in the labour force participation rates.
However, despite their paid employment status, there is a lack of change in the proportion of unpaid household and caregiving responsibilities towards children and the elderly, which women continue to bear. Women are biologically programmed to conceive, gestate a foetus, give birth and immediately nourish the baby by breastfeeding, just as nature intended. Adding to that, a woman has to keep up with paid and unpaid work without missing a beat!
Mothers who choose to stay at home are frowned upon. The choice to forgo financial independence in order to raise a family is considered selfish, and they are questioned about their contribution to society. How ironic!
In the second most overworked city in the world, employed mothers in Singapore not only face stressful work environments but constantly battle work-family conflict that result in guilt, anxiety and depression.
Single women fare no better in motherhood. Having put off marriage and child-bearing to build up their careers and increase their savings, they face the likelihood of decreasing fertility and increasing pregnancy risks as they age.
Singapore’s current employment landscape does not meet the needs of women’s child-bearing and -rearing years. There are a few reasons.
Firstly, many employees are subjected to Singapore’s workaholic culture leading to poor work-life balance and job stressors, which can adversely affect one’s physical and mental health. In a country that has been ranked among the bottom tier under work-life balance (TODAY, 2019), women in Singapore have increasingly defined professional success as having work-life balance over money (CFO Innovation Staff, 2013).
Secondly, while many find themselves seeking flexible working arrangements (FWAs), there is an implementation gap in the provision of flexi-work options – be it in the domain of the workplace, work hours or workload (Straughan & Tadai, 2016). Low-income women who usually engage in casual work often cannot enjoy FWAs. They continually struggle to find work where their own working hours complement the operating hours of childcare centres or alternative care arrangements, for instance (AWARE, 2018).
Professional women, too, are left with little choice but to exit the workforce as there are few to zero opportunities to contribute in the same professional capacity – whether in a part-time or flexi-work arrangement. According to Employer Alliance (2011, 2013) cited in Straughan and Tadai (2016), “The prevalence of traditional work patterns (8am-6pm x 5 days every week), significance of face time, and the expectation of overtime continue to cast suspicion on non-conventional work patterns in Singapore…”
Thirdly, when those who have taken a hiatus from work try to re-enter the job market, they are faced with discrimination due to perceived skill deterioration and being not “up-to-date” (Robert Walters, n.d.). Hence, women who had stayed at home for a few years remain hesitant to go back to work, or those who consider staying home dismiss the thought of a career break almost immediately.
GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS
Singapore’s marriage and fertility rates have been dipping over the years. Our fertility rates are at an all-time low of 1.14 total births per woman in 2019 (Department of Statistics Singapore, n.d.) – making it one of the lowest globally. Experts have cited that the long working hours in Singapore is a major factor why Singaporeans have fewer children (Tang, 2018).
Most employees are not just physically preoccupied with work but mentally and emotionally as well. The highly intense work culture in Singapore inadvertently leads an employee to neglect family duties. Time spent at work by both parents is time away from family and precious opportunities to bring the child up with an ideal set of morals, values, attitudes and behaviours.
In the grand scheme of things, are our material successes more important than building the nation and raising good human beings with strong values? After all, our children will constitute the labour force of the future. Society needs to be an honest critic of itself before beginning any reformation process.
MY WISH LIST
My wish is to see a firm mindset change favouring long-term gains over short-term goals. This is imperative for a favourable shift in our values and overall system, particularly with respect to women in their reproductive years.
Firstly, the mindset change on the importance of both parents being actively engaged in raising their children cannot be emphasised enough. Men and fathers have crucial roles to play in inculcating values and fostering positive mindsets of the young through active fathering, sharing of household, caregiving and parenting duties as well as adopting fair and respectful treatment towards girls and women.
It is widely known that active fathering has a positive impact on a child’s social and emotional development. According to the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse (n.d.), “Studies suggest that children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behaviour, and avoid high-risk behaviours including drug use, missing school and criminal activity”. Sharing of household chores, too, encourages a sense of responsibility in children. Those whose fathers display affection, respect and kindness towards their spouses are more likely to treat their future spouses the same way (Rosenberg & Wilcox, 2006).
It is also true that husbands who help with childcare duties contribute to increasing their working spouses’ morale (Hoffman et. al., 1999). The ever-lasting benefits of positive male role models on future generations speak for themselves. Hence, it is crucial that men, too, are able to disconnect psychologically from work, and be physically and emotionally present at home.
Secondly, there must be a mindset change in the form of societal acknowledgment that women are biologically different from men. Pregnancy affects women in various ways – while some may experience minimal symptoms, others face major complications, illnesses, discomforts, and even miscarriages. After which, they go through one of the most extreme pains ever evaluated – the pain of labour (Beigi, Broumandfar & Abedi, 2010). Most mothers then choose to breastfeed whenever possible as breastmilk is the ideal nourishment for an infant.
Breastfeeding provides the child antibodies, and offers the mother a host of health benefits. It also gives the mother a surge of oxytocin – the hormone responsible for maternal bonding – each time she breastfeeds. This is one reason behind women’s natural predisposition in caring for children. It is a given that some women may need the extended time to recuperate and care for their children, especially during their formative years.
Thirdly, a mindset change such that public policies support women is absolutely vital for a sustained progressive difference in societal values and norms. A reform in governmental financial assistance and schemes is needed to further support lower- and middle-income families to provide families with a viable option of a stay-at-home parent. Policy- makers could also tighten the existing scheme by imposing a mandatory cash or CPF top-up by the working family member to boost the retirement savings of the caregiver in the family.
Fourthly, while legislations are key, there must be a corresponding mindset change in employers to agree to implement changes to the work culture, policies and practices that will provide a better work-life balance. FWAs should be implemented where possible and the prevention of unfair treatment and discrimination must be strictly enforced.
Legislations play a key role in normalising changes to social and employment customs. It is important to seal a transformation of the mind through public and corporate policy. This translates into real benefits and consequences, i.e. time, money, job availability and security. There needs to be a consistent messaging from the top ranks to those at the bottom.
The French example demonstrates how crucial legislation is to improving work-life balance. The labour laws in France have given employees the “right to disconnect” once work has ended (Petroff & Cornevin, 2017) where work communication and the obligation to respond stops when employees clock out. Another long-overdue measure is the provision of a suite of flexible and part-time work arrangements, as well as extended unpaid leave made available to both men and women. This is in addition to the right to request for such options, without penalty, to balance work with household and caregiving responsibilities. It is a win-win situation for companies to offer FWAs.
Approximately 90 percent of married respondents in a 2016 Marriage and Parenthood Survey agreed that FWAs would attract and retain them in an organisation (Strategy Group PMO, 2017). A vast number of them also concurred that “FWAs would make/have made it easier to start a family (87%) and have more children (79%)” (Ibid). The additional time that employees get to spend with their children also allows for the cultivation of good and strong values. FWAs and the right to request for them establish a better work-life balance. These measures would not only improve women’s well-being, but afford men more time to participate more actively in household, caregiving and parenting duties.
Two ingenious proposals to encourage increased male presence at home are extending exclusive paternity leave and introducing a paternity cover policy where a contract staff is hired to cover the staff on paternity leave (Arivalagan, n.d.).
At the same time, a commitment by the state and market to allow women longer time off for pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing and not penalise them when they apply for leave from work, take a career break or have a late start in their career, needs to come to fruition. Women should not be hurried back to work on the pretext of contributing to the economy, should they choose to stay home and raise their children. Enforcing stricter non-discriminatory and anti-harassment employment practices would promote fair workplace environments for both men and women, encompassing recruitment, salary, performance appraisal, career progression and training opportunities. Protection against wrongful dismissals is imperative but in and of itself, inadequate.
Still, a mindset change needs to be initiated by employers to willingly welcome this rash of proposals and establish a sustained change in Singapore’s work culture. The mindset change refers to recognising the family as a vital social institution that cannot be compromised – employees belong to families and should not be working long hours to meet bosses’ unrealistic expectations.
Employees should not be penalised for taking time off or for requesting for FWAs for family reasons. The biological make-up of women is different from men; it requires a different systemic approach. The institution of improved work-life balance, FWAs and exclusive paternity leave will result in the curtailing of workplace discrimination and harassment against pregnant women, new mothers, returners and those who opt to work fewer hours. For now, those women are perceived to have lower competence and commitment to their work, despite delivering results.
A mindset change by everyone in the system is perhaps the most fundamental and difficult aspect required to address women’s issues. However, once it is met, the process of embedding deep-seated gender-equalising values and realising fair treatment towards girls and women will be eased in a joint effort among families, communities, corporations and the government.
Family upbringing, policies, practices and systemic changes are fundamental to shape a societal mindset. The reverse is true as well once these factors are met:
- the criticality of active male involvement at home
- the acknowledgement that women are biologically different from men
- the need for further government support
- the urgency of changes to work culture, policies and practices.
It seems logical to assume that domestic, work and systemic-related stresses and anxiety experienced by women will be substantially reduced with the above changes. The low marriage and fertility rates we are experiencing today will see a positive turnaround. When women are rightfully accorded the space, time and ease of mind to have and raise children, the impact from the private and familial spheres to the professional and public domains will benefit all fronts. ⬛
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Norhanna Yumi Ibrahim is a mother and has close to 5 years of experience as Manager of PPIS’ Research and Engagement Department which looks into women matters. She holds a BBM from SMU and BIRKH (Islamic Theology & Comparative Religion) from IIUM. The views and opinions expressed in this article are her own.