The scale of Singapore's gender pay gap may surprise some as, on the surface, there appears to be little discrimination against women, many of whom are well educated, have good jobs and earn good salaries. But the gap between men's and women's pay stands at 18 per cent - little changed from 10 years ago, according to a consumer research firm's analysis of official wage data from 2006 to 2016. A separate study released in March by the National University of Singapore Business School found that female company directors are paid on average a whopping 40 per cent less than their male peers.
Basing salary on gender implicitly denies equal opportunity for all to pursue roles befitting their abilities. Whether due to old-fashioned ideas of men as breadwinners-in-chief and women as primary caregivers, or biases about one gender making for better leaders, the result is unfairness that thwarts meritocracy. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung is right to point out that such stereotypes are "narrow-minded and damaging, not only to the economy, but to society at large".
At a time when women's economic participation has to be heightened because of demographic changes, it would be self-defeating to stick to outdated notions of performance and reward. A recent study noted that Singapore will struggle in coming years to offset the decline in the growth of the working-age population by higher labour participation rates. Indeed, the report said Singapore has the most to fear among Asia-Pacific nations which will also have to cope with the effects of ageing on a mass scale.
Holding down women's pay will not help the nation make the most of its human resources. To help change the status quo, Singapore Committee for UN Women president Trina Liang-Lin urged both men and women to shake off the belief that discussing pay is "taboo and unladylike". If women dare not speak of pay at job interviews and performance reviews, as most men do as a matter of course, then they risk sabotaging themselves in the fight for wage equality.
Traditionally, women carry the heavier load by keeping the home going, rearing children, and caring for the sick and elderly in the family. This has allowed men to function optimally in the workplace. Women could be similarly productive if social and work arrangements are adjusted so that family and household responsibilities are borne by both genders, flexi-work schedules are devised, and more affordable childcare options are made available. In Nordic countries, more equitable practices have prompted couples to have more babies. Society here must also evolve so that it becomes second nature to put able women as well in demanding positions - yes, including that of the prime minister - and to reward them no differently from men discharging similar duties.