Overcoming the challenges women face in the wake of Covid-19 and digital disruption
Today, women in Singapore lead lives vastly different from those of previous generations, thanks to the progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment over the past 50 years. However, Singapore is still in the midst of a pandemic which has caused great disruption to people’s livelihoods, wellbeing and everyday life.
Today, women in Singapore lead lives vastly different from those of previous generations, thanks to the progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment over the past 50 years.
However, Singapore is still in the midst of a pandemic which has caused great disruption to people’s livelihoods, wellbeing and everyday life.
Digitalisation and emerging technologies are also triggering changes to the ways we live, study, work and play.
Women have been particularly affected by the Covid-19 crisis given the multifaceted roles they play in our society.
In line with International Women's Day 2021 theme of “Choose to Challenge” and Singapore declaring 2021 as the Year of Celebrating SG Women, the focus this year should not only be on recognising women for their many achievements and contributions.
It is also imperative to understand their ongoing struggles and to counter deleterious yet persistent social and gender norms that hinder women’s progress and ability to thrive in a digitalising world concurrently battling Covid-19.
CHALLENGING CAREGIVING NORMS
For one thing, women are still shouldering the bulk of caregiving and household responsibilities, despite the shift from male-breadwinner to dual-earner households, and the increased participation of women in the workforce over time.
A 2018 International Labour Organisation report found this trend especially prevalent in Asia and the Pacific, with women spending 4.1 times more time than men doing unpaid care work — which includes caring for children, the elderly, the sick and other family members, undertaking tasks such as preparing food, cleaning and other chores within the household.
The 2013 Survey of Social Attitudes of Singaporeans showed a similar pattern in Singapore, with more than 50 per cent of women indicating that they did more caregiving and home-making tasks than their partners, while only 3 to 4 per cent of men indicated the opposite tendency.
A 2020 study by the Ministry of Manpower and National University of Singapore also revealed that Singapore’s adjusted gender pay gap figure was 6 per cent in 2018, where women’s propensity to undertake primary care responsibilities and taking time off to do so are part of the reason why women are still earning less than men for doing similar work.
This burden of care becomes even greater and harder to bear in times of the pandemic.
During Singapore’s circuit breaker in 2020, many women struggled to juggle work and employment and look after the family, including their children and home-based learning needs following the nationwide closures of schools, workplaces and childcare facilities.
Now, they have to adapt to the new norm of more frequent digitally-enabled working and studying from home arrangements.
Care work is integral to society for our wellbeing and economic development, now more so than ever.
However, this pattern of undervalued and unequal care responsibilities can have serious implications for women’s physical and mental health, and opportunities in life.
With already limited personal resources such as time and energy, women might find it even harder to upskill and keep up with digitalisation trends that are transforming the current state and future of work.
A digital skills deficit will definitely undermine their employability.
It is thus important for us to challenge prevailing gender norms and socially entrenched gender roles that unquestioningly regard women as society’s care providers.
Instead we must endeavour to normalise an even distribution of caregiving responsibilities among men and women.
CHALLENGING CONVENTION WORK ARRANGEMENTS
The pandemic has inadvertently pushed employers to rapidly digitalise everyday work processes and accelerated the adoption of flexible schedules and work-from-home arrangements.
A growing number of them have decided to incorporate such arrangements as a new working norm even beyond the pandemic.
Twitter, for instance, was one of the first companies to allow their employees to work from home “indefinitely”.
Other major firms such as Facebook, Google, Mastercard and Shopify have also made plans to make remote working a permanent fixture for their staff.
Several Singapore banks are also leading the change in permanently allowing their employees more flexi-time and hybrid work arrangements.
Institutionalising more workplace flexibility and remote working options can greatly help women better manage their work-life commitments and even help mothers return to the workforce after childbirth or a career break.
Such developments are also likely to accelerate the push towards having more equality in the division of household and childcare responsibilities as fathers are able to take on a portion of those responsibilities while also working from home.
Nonetheless, societal mindsets must also change, especially norms that expect workers to put in long hours and prioritise work at all times.
Such ideals have long disadvantaged women who face additional judgement as they are also socially and culturally expected to balance their family and household responsibilities.
As a result, women, especially mothers, are likely to suffer from penalties ranging from lower perceived competence and commitment, to the diminished likelihood of hiring and promotion as well as lower recommended and received salaries.
Such expectations are unrealistic and outdated, especially as digitally-enabled workplace flexibility further blurs the boundaries between work and home roles and obligations for both men and women.
CHALLENGING GENDER GAPS IN STEM AND ACROSS EMERGING INDUSTRIES
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gap Report 2020 has revealed that women’s participation in the labour market is currently stalling, with growing gender gaps across emerging industries and high-growth professions of the future. In Singapore, for example, women make up only 9 to 29 per cent of workers in the professional clusters of cloud computing, engineering, and data and artificial intelligence.
Technical skills and expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Stem) are also likely to be a distinct advantage in the future as the Fourth Industrial Revolution gains pace.
However, women are still underrepresented in Stem-related education and professions all over the world, including in Singapore.
Though many factors could explain this gender imbalance, internalised social norms and values surrounding gender identity, roles and stereotypes can also influence women’s choices of occupation or career.
More can thus be done to ensure that women will not shy away from exploring and pursuing opportunities in these emerging industries.
In particular, having female mentors and role models can be empowering for young women to cultivate their interest and awaken them to new possibilities in fast-growing sectors.
For example, the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s inaugural Singapore 100 Women in Tech list showcased women tech leaders whose career successes can inspire younger women in the sector.
Gaps in skills and expertise relevant to key professions in the future workforce can be a severe impediment to women’s upward mobility.
More efforts should thus be channelled into ensuring that everyone is future-ready with the relevant skills and opportunities to remain relevant and thrive in the face of technological transformations in work and workplaces.
As a society, we owe much to the women in our lives who perform multifaceted roles and have made many contributions to Singapore over the years.
However, they still face significant struggles and obstacles that undermine their welfare and hold them back from greater advancement.
In celebration of SG Women, let us thus move forward by making 2021 the year that everyone bears the responsibility to #choosetochallenge and call out gender inequality. In taking this definitive step, we can foster a fairer and more inclusive society.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Suhaila Zainal Shah is pursuing a doctorate degree at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Her research covers how to support mothers’ work and employment in times of digital disruption and Covid-19.