Close that workplace gender gap
The world once again finds itself celebrating International Women’s Day this Friday, March 8. There are many reasons to celebrate women’s and girls’ achievements. One obvious achievement we can boast about is that the gender gap in education has reversed in many parts of the world, as now girls more than boys are more likely to enter college and graduate.
While this is clearly progress for women – since receiving an education signals empowerment as theoretically it puts women on an equal playing field with men in enabling them to seek out wage work – gender equality in education does not automatically translate into gender equality in the workplace.
In fact, women still face persistent obstacles in the workplace because this domain remains largely male-dominated.
Several reasons point to why the gender gap in the workplace should be closed. The most obvious rationale is that closing the gap in employment actually spurs GDP growth rates as well as improves economic competitiveness and corporate performance.
Moreover, women bring a different approach to social interactions in the workplace, says President of Harvard University Drew Gilpin Faust.
PERSISTENT WAGE GAP
Making the workplace inclusive for women may be achieved in several ways. Ensuring equal pay for equal work across the sexes is one attempt at engendering gender equality.
In the United States, for example, in spite of the wage gap closing from 62 per cent from 1979 to 82 per cent in 2011 for men and women (according to data from the US Department of Labor and Bureau of Labor Statistics published in October 2012), a gap still persists with older female workers not being compensated as well as their younger counterparts.
In Southeast Asia also, men continue to earn more than women. According to the World Economic Forum, several countries in the region surpassed the average score of 0.64 documented for 135 countries in 2012 (with a score of 1 denoting gender equality). The Philippines (0.79), Thailand (0.74), Malaysia (0.82) and Singapore (0.81) are examples. Others, however, such as Indonesia and Vietnam fared relatively poorly in comparison with their neighbours, scoring 0.67 and 0.68 respectively
Removing every shade of discrimination against female employees in the area of promotion is also equally important. The numbers of women in decision-making positions in corporations and businesses continue to lag behind men because of the glass ceiling.
By removing the glass ceiling, which would have the effect of not only being inclusive of women, diversity is also ensured and, in turn, we may expect that the presence of women translates into better governance.
LET HER KNOW MOTHERHOOD MATTERS
Also important is that creating an inclusive workplace for women workers means there should be measures to ensure that women are not penalised if they decide not to work for a short period, in order to have or to look after their children.
This policy would have a twofold effect. Firstly, it would signal to women that their skills in the workplace are always in demand and it is acceptable for them to be mothers and workers at the same time.
Secondly, in the face of falling fertility rates across the world, a woman who decides to start a family should be fully aware that her choice of leaving the workforce for a short spell would not be held against her. She should be made to feel that her motherhood role is important not only to herself and her immediate family, but also to wider society.
Making the workplace more inclusive to women would include the provision of affordable childcare, especially in the case of working mothers, since female employees are more likely than their male counterparts to be saddled with the task of balancing family demands and workplace commitments.
Having access to affordable childcare means that the tensions of balancing home demands and workplace commitments would be significantly minimised, if these women are able to ingeniously labour towards integrating these two worlds.
If childcare is beyond the reach of the average household, this would lead to a situation where it is most likely women will choose not to enter the labour force, since they do not see gains in going out to work. For many women, it is they who would opt instead to stay at home since generally it is expected that they shoulder the burden of caring.
RETREAT FROM THE WORKPLACE
Mothers retreating from the workplace is a universal and perennial phenomenon to which Singapore is no exception.
According to a report on labour force engagement in Singapore published in 2011, 47.3 per cent of women as compared with 1.8 per cent of men singled out “families responsibilities” (which includes housework, childcare and care-giving to families/relatives) to be the reason for their economic inactivity. In fact among the women, 25.5 per cent reported not working because of childcare compared with 1.5 per cent of men.
Since motherhood is the main reason for women to retreat from the workplace, this is more than enough reason to address this concern and make it easier for women to return to work. In the world, the Nordic countries have gained considerable success in wooing large numbers of women back to the workforce. A combination of factors has led to this scenario, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2012.
These factors include policies enabling women to combine work and family through better work-life balance and ensuring a shared participation in childcare which involves greater involvement on the part of the State; and the prevalence of a gender ideology which encourages gender egalitarianism in the home front in terms of a more equitable distribution of labour.
At a time of slow and uncertain economic growth, there is enough justification for investing in women such that their participation in the labour force can be optimised. For countries with more robust economic forecasts, accelerating women’s participation in the labour force indicates a commitment on the part of employers as well as governments to ensure that the workplace continues to be inclusive.
As the Chinese proverb goes, women hold up half the sky; so, ensuring that women are on an equal footing with men in the workplace makes logical sense. But there should be no reason for women to feel pressured to fit in and to behave like men, should they decide to participate in the workforce. Rather as Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) says: “We have to dare the difference and speak about it”.
Dr Theresa W. Devasahayam is Fellow and Researcher-in-charge of Gender Studies at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.