Women the next engine of growth: Grace Fu

Office workers at Marina Bay Financial Centre in 2014.
Office workers at Marina Bay Financial Centre in 2014.PHOTO: ST FILE

Lifting female workforce participation is no longer just a women's issue but a Singapore issue relating to economic competitiveness, the top woman politician here has said.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu yesterday called on the corporate sector to keep cultivating a pro-family work environment and lift gender representation in leadership positions.

"Women will be the next engine of growth as they play an ever important role at home and in the workplace," added Ms Fu, the first woman to helm a ministry as a full minister in Singapore.

Given the demographic challenge of a rapidly ageing and shrinking population, she said there is a need to raise labour force participation rates, especially of women and seniors, to boost the local workforce.

For every citizen who is retiring, 1.4 citizens are entering the workforce, Ms Fu said. By 2030, at current birth rates, only 0.7 citizen will enter the workforce for every citizen retiring.

She noted that if the female labour force participation rate grew from 59 per cent now to 76 per cent - the rate for males - this would lift Singapore's local labour force by 13 per cent.

Speaking at an EY conference on gender parity yesterday, Ms Fu added that having a "meaningful representation" of women in the leadership also sends a strong signal that the company values women's contribution and views.

And women have steadily been chipping away at the glass ceiling. Citing figures from the Diversity Action Committee, EY advisory managing partner Mildred Tan said women's representation on boards of companies listed on the Singapore Exchange crept up to 9.1 per cent this year, up from 8.8 per cent last year and 8.3 per cent a year before that.

Ms Tan noted that one way to spur women's advancement in the workplace is to make female role models visible.

The point was later picked up by Ms Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary at the Public Service Division of the Prime Minister's Office, during a panel discussion, in describing how the civil service can change cultural perception about certain jobs.

This can be done via corporate communications and branding efforts, said Ms Yong. For example, generating publicity when the Singapore Armed Forces promoted the first female to the rank of brigadier-general this year.

Still, Ms Yong said the gender parity is not an "overt goal" of the Singapore public service, and it continues to take the position of meritocracy and equal opportunity .

The public service is the largest employer in Singapore, with 141,000 staff. Ms Yong shared that 53 per cent of its employees are women, while those at leadership level account for 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the total headcount.

Another way to encourage greater participation by women would be to put in place progressive corporate policies.

For example, Deutsche Bank in Singapore offers extended paternity leave to male staff - two weeks instead of one - and allows female staff to have an additional six months of flexible work arrangement to ease them back to work after they return from maternity leave.

The bank has 2,000 employees in Singapore, 40 per cent of whom are women.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2015, with the headline 'Women the next engine of growth: Grace Fu'. Subscribe