Stop the stereotyping, celebrate and value women instead

I am a woman who loves to cook but I am more than my skills in the kitchen.

So when I saw that a department store here had announced a sale on beauty products, high heels and frying pans in honour of International Women's Day earlier this month, I was peeved.

Why, on a day which was created to acknowledge the importance of women and to push for their equality around the world, were we being offered discounts on items that emphasise the traditional stereotypes? We could have just as easily been offered a sale on outdoor gear, sportswear or executive briefcases.

Some other offices reportedly celebrated the day by offering their female employees free manicures.

Elsewhere, a chain of waxing salons promoted a "Treat yo' self well" sale with discounts on Brazilian treatments. Yes, because encouraging women to painfully, and arguably unhealthily, remove all of their pubic hair is what it means to treat yourself well.

What's wrong with taking advantage of these sales? Why look a gift horse in the mouth, I've been asked.

For companies that want to honour International Women's Day, how about pledging - and proving - that the women in their offices earn as much as men for the same jobs? Or committing to place more women in positions of power? Or providing meaningful paternity leave and flexible working hours for parents?

The fact is, women are chief executives, surgeons, human rights lawyers, heads of state, scientists and artists. We are professionals, we are caregivers, we are many things, and people who like and take advantage of these deals need to stop and think about what they are literally and figuratively buying into, and the sexist stereotypes of women as cook, cleaner and beautiful object they are indulging and perpetuating in the process.

The very fact that these sales exist on a day like International Women's Day shows that as a society, we still have work to do in disassociating women from these belittling cliches. If customers do not hold companies to a higher standard, who can? Who will?

In nations where women have the right to vote and access to jobs and an education, it's easy to forget or to ignore that there are systemic issues - such as the gender pay gap, the dearth of quality and affordable daycare, and limited paid parental leave for men and women - which often hold women back from achieving their highest potential.

Women are getting university degrees like never before, yet a Deloitte study of boardrooms in 49 countries revealed that women hold just 12 per cent ofboard seats.

Compare this with Norway, newly minted as the happiest country in the world, where women take up 46.7 per cent of board seats - the highest percentage in the world.

Not coincidentally, it also boasts one of the world's most generous and flexible parental leave schemes, where parents are guaranteed 49 weeks' leave at full pay, or 59 weeks' leave at 80 per cent of their pay.

In Singapore, where female representation on company boards is even lower than the worldwide average at 9.7 per cent, legally married mothers of future Singaporeans are entitled to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.

This drops to eight weeks of employer-paid leave for mothers of non-Singaporean children, and potentially none at all if the mother of a non-Singaporean child already has two children at home. Ouch.

A step in the right direction is the Government's Paid Paternity Leave programme, launched in January, which grants eligible working fathers of Singaporean children two weeks of paid paternity leave.

Paternity leave is meant to provide meaningful bonding time between father and child, as well as help to support the mother in her return to work.

While two weeks is better than nothing at all, the programme's short duration and payment-cap at $2,500 per week raises questions about the roles the Government expects men and women to play in their children's lives. Can we say that child-rearing responsibilities are being distributed fairly? Do we want them to be?

Women who return to the office usually feel compelled to do so while their baby is only a few months old, and many parents rely heavily on domestic helpers for their childcare needs.

Yet, the rights of such foreign domestic workers - almost all women - are often compromised. A few weeks ago, website Mothership.sg reported that a foreign domestic worker had trouble finding work because she was asking for two days off a month - half of her legal entitlement,but apparently still too much.

If this is how we regard and treat the women who make our return to work possible, who help clean our homes, cook our food and raise our families, are we an equal society? Do we value women and what is so often deemed "women's work"?

Remember, in Singapore, we are the fortunate ones. Millions of women and girls around the world still do not have equal access to education, healthcare or safe work. They live in societies where their lives and their futures are strictly limited and dominated by men.

In Bangladesh, for example, a law passed last month will allow girls under 18 years old to marry if they have parental and court permission. Activists argue that this could be used to force young girls into marriage, potentially with their rapists or abusers, in a country where, already, a staggering 52 per cent of girls are married before age 18.

Such stories are stark reminders that there is work to be done and that International Women's Day still has a place in the world.

For companies that want to honour International Women's Day, how about pledging - and proving - that the women in their offices earn as much as men for the same jobs? Or committing to place more women in positions of power? Or providing meaningful paternity leave and flexible working hours for parents?

At least, they should seek to empower female employees and customers, as beauty app and website Vaniday did with its Women's Day campaign. With a video celebrating unique Singapore-based women, including race car driver Claire Jedrek and tattoo artist Jane Surin, it encouraged women to take risks and live life on their own terms.

However you celebrate International Women's Day, to ignore its social and political nature is to entirely miss the point. Turning it into a commercial branding exercise that reinforces stereotypes is insulting at best, downright offensive at worst.

It is not a Hallmark Holiday, and it is not for sale.

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

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 26, 2017, with the headline 'Stop the stereotyping, celebrate and value women instead'. Print Edition | Subscribe