Women and women's organisations have played a pivotal role in Singapore since its pre-independence days, but they have not always featured strongly in the country's historical narrative.
Highlighting the contributions of women as the Republic marks its bicentennial this year, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said yesterday: "It is an opportunity for us to reflect on the longer historical evolution of women in Singapore and impact they made on our nation."
Women, who made up about 20 per cent of the population in the 1900s, grew in numbers in the 1920s as colonial authorities restricted the number of male immigrants to balance the gender ratio and control the unemployment level, she said.
"This opened the door for female immigrants. Among these were the samsui women and amahs," she said at a conference by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry at Shangri-La Hotel.
Noting these immigrant women achieved financial independence and provided for their families, Ms Fu added that they were an exception as migrant communities here were from cultures that constrained women in the roles of wives and mothers after marriage.
Change started as women galvanised to contribute to war rehabilitation efforts, and set up associations and mutual help groups.
A lobbying movement began, she added, for legislation to protect women and give them equal rights. Eventually, the Women's Charter was enacted in 1961.
Ms Fu also noted the need to celebrate women who pushed frontiers despite social norms setting limits on what they could do. They include Singapore's first woman Olympian, Tang Pui Wah.
But women continue to struggle with playing multiple roles in life even as they now have more opportunities, she said.
In a speech yesterday, DP Architects chief executive Angelene Chan said she continued to receive gender-related queries from the media such as why women were outnumbered by men at senior levels.
Noting that many women feel pressure to choose between work and family, she said it was helpful to stop seeing the choice to raise a family as a sacrifice, and to not worry that one will lose her edge when returning to work.
In a discussion on the outlook for career women, Ms Jaelle Ang, co-founder of co-working space operator The Great Room, said it was important not to buy into gender cliches but instead form teams based on each person's strengths and weaknesses.