SINGAPORE - Women should have real choices between work and family commitments, and be given more equal opportunities at workplaces, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (Sept 18).
"(Women) should have equal opportunities to prove themselves and reach their fullest potential. We must not let our prejudices become obstacles to women's progress," he said at the virtual closing session of the Conversations on Singapore Women's Development.
"We will protect women better against discrimination or unfair treatment at the workplace, and other groups too, who may experience discrimination at work."
PM Lee noted that while women's standing in Singapore has improved greatly, societal attitudes towards women have not fully modernised and expectations are often not quite equal.
At workplaces, women still encounter preconceived notions, roles and gender stereotypes.
"If they are too gentle, they get bulldozed over by male colleagues. Too firm, and they are resented for being too bossy, sometimes even by female subordinates," he said.
At home, women tend to shoulder a heavier share of domestic responsibilities, even if men are starting to do more, he added.
A major move that will level the playing field for female employees is the formalisation of the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices into law.
Improving childcare arrangements to make them more accessible and affordable, as well as employers offering more flexible work arrangements, will make a difference, said PM Lee.
Minister of State for Education and Social and Family Development Sun Xueling also said at the session that the issue of equal opportunities in the workplace represents about 37 per cent of the feedback gleaned from the 160 government-organised conversations held in the past year.
Tackling workplace discrimination in terms of hiring and promotions, flexible work arrangements to encourage women to remain in or re-enter the workforce, as well as greater female representation in leaderships were some key points raised by participants, said Ms Sun.
The issue was also discussed at the People's Action Party's annual Women's Wing conference on Saturday.
Speaking to The Straits Times after the hybrid event, Dr Filza Aslam, a medical science liaison, said that women often fear that career breaks taken to raise children or be caregivers work against them during the hiring process.
"Oftentimes, the hiring manager may think that this person has been out of touch, or may not be as updated," said Dr Filza, who co-founded a networking and career advice group for women in life sciences and healthcare.
"It's about changing such mindsets - not thinking of that time away from the workforce as a gap, and not letting that negatively impact the interview process."
Companies could support such women by providing opportunities to pick up new skills that may be required, she added.
Ms Elaine Tan, deputy director of communications and partnerships at St Luke's Eldercare, agreed that the onus was on organisations to engineer a cultural shift from within, instead of relying on legislation.
Employers compelled to comply, thinking "okay, this is what the Government wants us to do", may then do it very reluctantly. This may exacerbate discrimination against women, she told ST after the event.
"It's much better if the organisations themselves can appreciate the value of women making economic contributions. It's to their benefit anyway, to be able to retain their talents rather than keep going through the churn of hiring and retraining."
At a panel discussion during the conference, former MP Ho Geok Choo outlined three suggestions for workplace equality.
The chief executive of Human Capital Singapore, a competency training centre, said companies should emphasise using data to track and analyse the number of women being hired, promoted and who are leaving.
Society must also get rid of "likeability biases" - where competent men are more liked and successful women are not - by engaging men to amplify to other men the merits of women and how to appreciate the other gender better, said Madam Ho.
She also called on schools to encourage more women to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics programmes.