Egg freezing, more flexi-work among policy changes in White Paper on S'pore women

The gains in elevating women and achieving fairness will depend on shifting societal norms on women's role in society. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - A 10-year road map to nudge society further along the road to equality between men and women will see greater support for flexible work arrangements, more help for caregivers and swifter intervention in cases of violence.

In a symbolic move, more women will also be allowed to freeze their eggs.

The long-anticipated White Paper on Singapore Women's Development, submitted to Parliament on Monday (March 28), comes after more than a year of discussions aimed at ensuring a fair and inclusive society where all citizens can realise their full potential.

It describes the barriers and challenges that still hold women back, from glass ceilings in the workplace to caregiving responsibilities at home and violence and harm online, and promises a whole-of-government effort to address them.

It also calls on Singaporeans to be conscious of gender stereotyping in their everyday actions and to try to overcome them.

Speaking to reporters earlier this month, Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo said: "(The White Paper) sensitises and raises the awareness that women still need our support in many ways.

"And it is very much up to each one of us in our respective roles to try and give the women in our lives the support that they need in order to fulfil their aspirations."

While policy and legislative changes over the years have removed many of the overt obstacles in the way of women's development, further success can only be had if society as a whole works to shift mindsets, said the White Paper.

A case in point is the action plan on elective egg-freezing, which Mrs Teo noted society was previously not ready to address.

From next year, women between 21 and 35 years of age, regardless of their marital status, will be allowed to freeze their eggs, reversing the longstanding policy to allow only women who have medical issues that may affect their fertility to do so.

However, only legally married couples can use their frozen eggs to try for a baby through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). This is in line with existing IVF rules and the idea of “upholding parenthood within marriage”.

"When the idea first came up in our ground engagements, it caused some discomfort. There were worries in certain quarters that making elective egg freezing available would send the wrong signal about marriage and parenthood, that they need not be prioritised and can always be postponed," said Mrs Teo.

She added that over time, engagement efforts bore fruit and mindsets changed, and "most people came to a better understanding of the motivations of women who would take up the option".

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The 115-page White Paper sets out five main areas of focus: equal opportunities in the workplace; recognition and support for caregivers; protection against violence and harm; other support measures for women, including single mothers and divorcees; and mindset shifts.

They were distilled from a year-long series of conversations to canvass views, led by Minister of State for Social and Family Development and Education Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth and Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling and Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Communications and Information Rahayu Mahzam.

Under these focus areas sit 25 action plans - some of which had been announced previously after the White Paper was first broached in September 2020 - ranging from the concrete to the symbolic.

There will be new anti-workplace discrimination laws to weed out a minority of errant employers with unfair practices in hiring, promotion, and retrenchment, among other things. It will protect the confidentiality of women who come forward and protect them from retaliation.

With Covid-19 showing that flexible work arrangements can work, a new set of tripartite guidelines will be introduced by 2024 to set out best practices for flexible work arrangements, so as to entrench these practices.

Meanwhile, since women are four times as likely as men to take on housework and caregiving duties, and women in dual-income households are five times as likely as men to do so, there will be more support for caregivers in the form of higher grants under the Home Caregiving Grant scheme.

Further success in gender equality can only be had if society as a whole works to shift mindsets, said the White Paper. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

To address the issue of harassment towards women, a safe sport code will also be introduced, among other things, to define misconduct in the sporting environment so that athletes can take a stand against bad behavior.

A mid-point review of these measures is planned in 2027.

"Underlying... each of the action plans are the commitments we make to one another: that everyone gets a fair chance at success, can find a place for herself/himself in this nation, and that we take care of the vulnerable among us," said the document.

In setting out the issues to be addressed, the White Paper stressed that women in Singapore have made remarkable progress over the past six decades.

This was possible because from the very start, the Government regarded Singapore women as "the equal half of our society", despite the patriarchal norms that existed during that time, the paper said.

Since the early years of nation-building, women have played a crucial role in society, such as when they voted in full force during the 1959 Legislative Assembly election and sent in five women into the legislature, added the paper.

Keeping its electoral promise to uplift women, the People's Action Party government passed the landmark Women's Charter in 1961, which institutionalised the equal standing of men and women in marriage and ensured the welfare and protection of women in Singapore.

Highlighting these developments, the White Paper said: "We have been working hard to change societal norms about the relationship between men and women, from one based primarily on patriarchal values to one based more on respect and partnership. This remains a conscious and ongoing effort, even as we have seen some positive mindset shifts over the years."

Despite the efforts over the years, some entrenched gender stereotypes remain, such as the notion that women are the primary caregivers and men are the main breadwinners, and that certain jobs should be performed by women and others by men.

Such mindsets need to change for the action plans to be effective and for Singapore to make the next bound of progress in women's development, said the White Paper.

The paper suggests that education is the way to achieve this, starting from teaching pre-schoolers about body safety awareness, to providing compulsory modules on respect and appropriate behaviour to students in institutes of higher learning.

In all this, men have a role to play, said the White Paper.

In the 160 conversations held, involving nearly 6,000 Singaporeans, one-fifth of participants were men.

Some noted that men can foster mindset shifts in other men and demonstrate practical support for women, such as by taking on a more active role at home and championing more equal opportunities for women at work.

The White Paper noted that men also benefit when gender stereotypes are addressed.

"Men may be equally constrained by societal expectations of how men should behave or perform at home or at work. By recognising everyone's individuality and worth, more men and women can be empowered to pursue and realise their aspirations," said the paper.

"Both women and men should have real choices to pursue different aspirations at various stages of life, without feeling like they must adhere to gender stereotypes or 'have it all' to be fulfilled."

Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli, in a Facebook post on Monday, said Singapore’s vision for a more inclusive society cannot be achieved just by legislation and policies. He urged men to play their part.

“These mean speaking out and standing up against inappropriate behaviour towards women, sharing domestic duties at home, and encouraging our children to pursue careers based on their interests and strengths and not be constrained by gender stereotypes,” he added.

Meanwhile, President Halimah Yacob cheered the action plans on caregiving and flexible work arrangements.

“Women must feel that their success in the workplace is because of - not despite - the norms and institutions in our society,” she said in a Facebook post.

Ultimately, it will take a "whole of society" effort to achieve gender equality, said the White Paper, calling on civil society, private organisations and citizens to work with the Government."Singapore can achieve much more with men and women standing as equal partners and contributors to society," it added.

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