Right policies can give women real choices in juggling work and home duties: Sun Xueling

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SINGAPORE - The right policies need to be in place to give women real choices when it comes to balancing work and home responsibilities, said Minister of State for Social and Family Development and Education Sun Xueling.

Now that a wide-ranging review into women's development has kicked off, it may be time to examine if appropriate schemes are in place, for instance, to help women choose how they want to balance a career with care-giving responsibilities at home, she added.

It may also be worth looking at whether existing arrangements, such as flexiwork, go far enough in helping women juggle their commitments, Ms Sun said.

These were some of the issues raised by stakeholders on Sunday (Sept 20) during a dialogue session led by Ms Sun, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth and Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling and Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam.

The dialogue - the first of several more to come - will gather ideas and suggestions that will form the basis of a White Paper to be delivered in the first half of next year, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Sunday, when he announced the review.

Ms Sun said the review will be a "whole-of-society exercise".

Speaking to The Straits Times on Monday for its daily show The Big Story, Ms Sun said: "We're going to have to speak to people across different age groups, across different sectors from all walks of life, to get a sense of what they think about how far we have come, and what more we can do.

"So, we hope to reach out to the people and private sectors, and we hope to work with voluntary welfare organisations. We also have some partner organisations that will be organising these conversations for us - such as the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, NTUC, People's Association, Reach, and many more."

The reaction from Singaporeans to the review has been very encouraging, said Ms Sun.

"A few hours after the conversation we had yesterday, I had many e-mails come in, text messages, people from different organisations, different walks of life wanting to be involved in these conversations," she said.

Ms Sun said the initial estimate was to have about 10 to 12 engagement sessions, but now perhaps several more will be needed, as there seems to be more interest in these issues than expected.

Already, during the first dialogue on Sunday, participants honed in on a raft of issues they felt needed to be tackled. These include workplace discrimination and the gender pay gap, as well as casual sexism, gender stereotypes, and respect for women, she said.

The issue of family violence towards women and concerns about the disproportionate burden of caregiving responsibilities on women were also raised.

Said Ms Sun: "I think the pandemic has cast a spotlight on these areas, and also, how do we weigh the contributions of women who are homemakers, for instance.

"And in the workplace and school environments, there are questions such as: Is there workplace discrimination or gender pay gap? And are there appropriate policies in place to ensure that women - when we say that they have choices - that they have real choices?"

When asked if there should be separate programmes for girls and boys to learn values of equality, Ms Sun said the starting point is that men and women should be treated equally.

"We ought to ensure that gender roles, respect towards women, what we see as role models, how values are being taught at home - we think such conversations should perhaps start from a position of equality between the sexes."

Asked whether the review could lead to policy or structural changes, Ms Sun said it was a possibility. "We hope that this set of recommendations is going to be broad and far-reaching enough, setting out our position as a society as to how we see women's development and gender equality," she said.

The White Paper, she added, will be debated in Parliament, where more views would be considered. "And after that, if there is a need for policy changes, or legislative changes, then we would address it at that point," said Ms Sun.

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