Women’s development has come a long way, but is still a work in progress: Shanmugam

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said today’s Singapore is as good a place as many others for women to move ahead. PHOTO: DBS

SINGAPORE- Women’s development has come a long way in Singapore, but women here still face bias, stereotypes and obstacles, and mindsets must shift in order to make further progress, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam said on Tuesday.

“We have made good strides but it (women’s development) remains a work in progress. To bring about lasting, positive change, we have to inculcate the right mindset, and it requires a whole-of-society effort,” he said.

Mr Shanmugam was speaking at a DBS Bank discussion on workplace inclusivity, along with fellow panellists – DBS Bank chief executive Piyush Gupta and DBS group head of institutional banking Tan Su Shan – at the DBS Auditorium. The discussion was held to mark International Women’s Day.

The minister said that today’s Singapore is as good a place as many others for women to move ahead, as organisations are now more enlightened about nurturing every possible talent, be it male or female. In the Government, half the ministries have female permanent secretaries, he noted.

But he cautioned that mindsets are fluid, and attitudes can easily regress.

Citing the case of misogynistic British-American influencer Andrew Tate, Mr Shanmugam noted that the former kickboxer has garnered a following among boys and young men in Britain even though he has made very extreme comments about women.

The BBC reported in February that some British schools have introduced lessons to tackle sexist behaviour after their students said they admired the 36-year-old and considered him a role model.

“In Singapore, we will not tolerate any kind of violence against women or men... and a person like Andrew Tate will not be allowed to glorify violence against women – he will be in jail,” said Mr Shanmugam.

At the discussion, Mr Gupta agreed on the need to chip away at stereotypes, and said this can be achieved through what he called “programmes of change”.

One such programme at DBS allows employees with infants to have the flexibility to work from home for a year after their child’s birth, and that includes new fathers.

This and the Government’s recent move to enhance paternity leave from two to four weeks function as initiatives that capture people’s attention and change mindsets, he said.

On Tuesday, DBS and non-profit organisation SG Her Empowerment (SHE) announced that they will launch two initiatives in April to advance the agenda on gender equality at the workplace.

DBS will start a seven-month Women’s Leadership Programme aimed at elevating high-potential women leaders in the bank by providing a platform for them to build support networks.

Meanwhile, SHE will launch SHE Sneak Peek, an initiative for underprivileged young women to take up short-term placements in various organisations over a year.

Among the 20 organisations that have come onboard are DBS, Grab, Ernst & Young and Standard Chartered Bank, as well as government agencies such as the Singapore Civil Defence Force and Singapore Police Force. 

Mr Shanmugam said: “This will increase the exposure of the young participants and inspire them to dream big.”

Apart from such programmes and wider societal shifts, individuals are accountable for their own success, and having a resilient attitude matters, said Ms Tan. “There are a lot of people who you can call upon to help, but at the end of the day, you make that final decision (on your career),” she said.

Recounting her own experience of having worked in male-dominated environments, Ms Tan urged women to be accountable for their own career paths, and to have the attitude and agility to take challenges in stride.

Asked about statistics that show just over half of new fathers in Singapore use their paternity leave, Mr Shanmugam said this is significant progress from not too long ago, and provides a base for the country to build further.

He acknowledged that Singapore is not yet like the Scandinavian countries, where societal norms are such that employers frown on fathers who do not take leave to look after their children.

“Our value proposition is being faster, better and more productive than all our competitors, so you have to balance it (and) we need to find our own level,” he said.

The tougher question than getting men to take paternity leave or be more involved at home is how to manage the economy while making the city-state a much more family-friendly place, said Mr Shanmugam.

He said the Government is aware that each time it makes a policy change to be more family-friendly, it imposes a cost on companies. Meanwhile, perceptions and practices formed over time immemorial across all societies are difficult to root out overnight.

“The qualitative mindset change... that’s much tougher (to crack),” he said.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.