Millennials and myth of gender equality

I recently ran into a former schoolmate around Raffles Place, and, after we exchanged the requisite pleasantries, he asked: "How come you're not wearing heels and makeup? Isn't it a work day?"

I was confused, given that I was wearing closed-toe flats and one of the (many) solid-coloured shift dresses in my wardrobe reserved for the office.

I am not in the habit of wearing either heels or makeup, except when suitable occasions arise, I replied. My work takes me from factories in far-flung industrial estates to plush boardrooms - sometimes on the same day - and I have to dress accordingly.

"But girls look better if they dress up more," he said earnestly. "More professional right?"

"I'll consider it if you start wearing heels and makeup too," I responded. He laughed, and we parted ways shortly after. But the encounter left me both furious and depressed.

Not because he slighted my appearance - I am perfectly secure in being relatively low-maintenance.

What infuriated me was the implication that women had to be primped and plucked within an inch of their lives to come across as professional.

It is already 2017, but clearly there are still people who think they can give unsolicited advice to women on how to dress, and offer "helpful" comments that are anything but.

This was not some gentleman of advanced age from whom casual sexism might be almost expected.

Like me, this former schoolmate is in his late 20s and we both grew up in an age of gender equality.

After all, we are supposed to have come a long way since the "bad old days" of blatant misogyny, before the feminist movement swept across the developed world.

I would like to think there has been some progress since the days when women took to the streets to demand equality and fair treatment.

But perhaps our generation has been too quick to assume that those impassioned feminist predecessors had already won the fight for us.

While examples of high-flying female lawyers, bankers, engineers, politicians, teachers - and journalists! - abound in Singapore, the fact remains that men still overwhelmingly outnumber women in top positions. The Diversity Action Committee - set up in 2014 to improve female representation on company boards - said such representation has risen from 8 per cent in 2012 to 9.7 per cent as at the end of June last year.

On average, women are paid at least 10 per cent less than men for doing the same job in most sectors, according to a study from the Ministry of Manpower.

Besides these overt inequalities, sexism of a more insidious type is also very much alive. And attitudes, even among the young, seem to have shifted only marginally over the years.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health in the United States published a study this month about how college biology students view their classmates' intelligence and achievements.

They found that male students systematically overestimated the knowledge of the men in their classes relative to the women, even when faced with clear evidence of the women's superior performance. In contrast, the female students surveyed did not show bias and accurately evaluated their fellow students.

The researchers concluded: "The chilly environment for women (in the sciences) may not be going away any time soon."

Most of my male peers know better than to explicitly call women less smart or less capable, but other forms of casual sexism and gender stereotyping are still rampant.

I was once told that I'm "not like most girls" - by a man who thought he was paying me a compliment.

The dating world is even more fraught with depressing stereotypes, coyly masked as traditions - women cannot appear "too keen" or "too needy", men should make the first move and pay for dates.

It is tempting to brush these off as an overreaction to compliments or a misunderstanding of benign intent. After all, these "microaggressions" are so common that women often don't even notice them.

But they perpetuate stereotypes and assumptions about what women are "supposed" to be like, and encourage criticism of those who do not conform.

Women are "supposed" to be less aggressive than men, more sensitive, have an "ideal" body type, focused on getting married and having children, obsessed with their looks - the list goes on.

Those who do not meet these "criteria" often find themselves at the receiving end of "helpful advice" - or worse, outright jibes - not just from men but also other women.

Beyond causing offence, however, entrenched notions about gender can have more sobering consequences - and not just for women. The same gender stereotypes that hurt and restrict women can also have a harmful impact on men.

From an early age, boys are told that they have to be "macho" and "dominant" because that is how society defines masculinity. As a result, men are often discouraged from displaying any "feminine" traits - like showing physical or emotional weakness.

This fear of vulnerability can keep men or boys from asking for help when they need it - which can lead to both mental and physical health issues, according to psychologists. In extreme cases, it can also result in a propensity for violence, with potentially devastating consequences.

Understanding how these perceptions permeate our society - and working to correct them - is in everyone's best interest.

But social norms and attitudes can shift at a glacial pace. Tackling sexism can be very tricky, partly because people are often not conscious of their complicity in perpetuating sexist stereotypes.

My former schoolmate, for instance, probably thought he was offering me helpful career advice.

In hindsight, I should have reacted more strongly to his comment, or been more forceful in calling him out on it.

Change can happen a step at a time if more of us question our ingrained assumptions and accept that not everyone has to fit into a box.

  • #opinionoftheday is a new column by younger writers in the newsroom on issues that matter to them and their peers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline Millennials and myth of gender equality. Subscribe