Closing gender gap: Still a work in progress

The latest numbers that point to a narrowing of Singapore's gender gap seem encouraging, although the positive picture they paint might be papering over the finer cracks preventing full equality.

At first glance, however, Singaporean women are making promising headway. MasterCard's latest survey on gender equality in Asia, for instance, places Singapore fourth among the 16 Asia-Pacific countries polled.

What's more gratifying, Singapore women largely aced the survey's key yardsticks of education and leadership. Our girls are neck-and-neck with the boys in enrolment at secondary and tertiary levels - the collective point where education offers young adults opportunities to aim for a meaningful foothold in life. In another important measure, men have a four-to-three edge over women.

But once hired, more women remain in regular employment than men.

To cap the cheerful news, Singapore's high ranking in leadership appears to disprove a common perception that women are a subordinate presence in business and politics. Yet there remains that little buzz at the back of one's head insisting that all is not quite with what the numbers are saying.

Perhaps one reason is that statistical advances attest mainly to the improvement in societal infrastructure - systems built on principles of fairness and meritocracy. The cautionary dissonance lies in something less tractable - cultural notions and lingering mindsets.

Perceptions of gender roles, for example, are familiar enough: Women are still expected to work, nurture kids, care for elders, and be homemakers. And despite mum-friendly legislation, anecdotal evidence suggests some employers still try to undermine the intent of the law, suggesting that while society at large is willing, many individuals aren't.

Statistics also bear witness to this cultural intractability. While there are 40 female business owners for every 100 male counterparts, the boardrooms remain an old boys' club where men occupy more than 90 per cent of the seats. As for riches, only two women are among the 50 wealthiest people here, if one were to exclude the heirs of family fortunes. Women politicians may have progressed, but men MPs outnumber the women 84-18; and there is but one woman among 18 full Cabinet ministers.

The need for a Singapore women's hall of fame and the absence of one for the men offers an ironic glimpse of a vestigial cultural bias linked to certain perceptions of gender.

Among the Asia-Pacific nations polled, only New Zealand and the Philippines had more than half as many female as male business and government leaders. There's simply no reason why Singapore cannot be among them.