Gender Equality Motion – Speech by Jamus Lim

Delivered in Parliament on 3 August 2021

Womenomics in Singapore

Madam Deputy Speaker, others in this House have shared about why a society that isn’t truly gender-neutral is problematic from a political, social, and cultural perspective. Allow me to contribute to this discussion with the economic point of view.

Unsurprisingly, discrimination of any form—whether on the basis of race, religion, or gender—entails not just visible costs to the social and moral fabric of society; it also embeds hidden—or, at least, underappreciated—costs for the functioning of our economy. In this speech, I wish to bring some of these potentially hidden costs into the light.’

Gender equality and economic performance

There is now a substantial body of evidence pointing to the importance of gender equality for economic development.

Economic historians have argued that one of the important contributors to the Great Divergence[1]—when European Civilization was able to overtake Qing China, Mughal India, and Tokugawa Japan—was the so-called “European Marriage Pattern”: a pattern of delayed female marriage, elevated female celibacy, and the formation of small, nuclear-family households.[2] The idea is that, by improving the position of women, this pattern increases both labor force participation[3] and encourages greater investment in human capital,[4] which serves to promote long-run economic growth.[5]

This argument has since been rigorously tested against data from around the world, and the results are clear: greater gender equality tends to be associated with higher growth.[6] Remarkably, the relationship works both ways: not only does empowering women benefit development, but development, in and of itself, can also be a force for suppressing gender inequality, which holds the potential for a virtuous circle of ever-greater empowerment and development.[7]

Remarkably, this insight—that gender equality and female empowerment are a force for economic progress—was most pithily expressed not by a paragon of capitalism, but an icon of communism. In encouraging women to pursue education and work outside the home, Chairman Mao Zedong famously proclaimed that, “妇女能顶半边天” (or, literally, “women hold up half the sky”), an allusion to how women can (and do) contribute mightily to the success of the economic endeavors of a nation.

The state of womenomics in Singapore

Closer to home, Singapore has—like many Newly Industrialized Economies (NIEs) in East Asia—steadily improved the extent to which women are engaged as productive members of the economy. Between 1990 and 2019, for example, the female labor force participation rate has risen from around 45 percent in 1990, to about 62 percent in 2019 (the latest year that data are available).[8] This represents an increase of a little less than a third, which is notable for an advanced economy.

It is also significantly higher than rates among our NIE peers, which average closer to 53 percent, and also surpasses that of developed Southern European nations such as Greece and Italy, where participation hovers in the low to mid-forties. Clearly, we have—even in more recent times—managed to encourage the entry of women into formal employment.

Alas, this impressive quantitative success masks some deeper, and possibly more worrisome, pathology.

For starters, participation has trended slightly down over the past five years.[9] Now, to be clear: I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, suggesting that women should always seek to increase their engagement in the workforce, come what may. Indeed, some retreat from working life may well be a calculated choice—reflecting a desire to spend more time in homemaking or the pursuit of other interests, such as hobbies or philanthropy—which may be enabled by higher incomes from the main breadwinner.

But we should not be blind to the possibility that some of the fastest growing sectors—such as technology, finance, and data science—are famously male-dominated, and reduced participation could be symptomatic of the difficulty that women face in breaking into such lucrative professions, thereby inhibiting the further expansion of labor market entry by women.

Furthermore, there remains a significant imbalance in the participation rates of men and women. Over the same period, the male participation rate has continued to outstrip that of women, ranging between 78 and 79 percent over the past three decades. Put another way, the ratio of female-to-male labor force participation is around 0.79, substantially below Scandinavian countries, where the ratio is closer to 0.9. So we know that greater egalitarianism is eminently possible.

Another reason that constrains further participation by Singaporean women is that they are still often expected to take on the primary responsibilities of caregiving and housework in the family. Hence, asking women to hold down a job and advance in their careers, while also taking on domestic work, effectively consigns women to a double shift, or equivalently, juggling two jobs.[10] Often, the added burden compels them to either leave the workforce, or reduce their hours to part-time employment.

The numbers corroborate this story: In Singapore, 83.4% of married men were employed in 2017, while in contrast, only 63.3% of married women stayed in the workforce. By a similar token, women are overrepresented in in part-time jobs. For that same year, women accounted for 64% of part-time labor force participation, almost twice as many as men, who accounted for the remaining 36%.[11]

This latter statistic underscores the main obstacle preventing greater female participation in the labor force: time constraints. Of course, working part-time could well be a lifestyle choice, which should be available regardless of gender. But with only 47% of firms in Singapore offering full-time, flexible work arrangements, many women find themselves taking on part-time jobs not necessarily by choice, but rather because their employer either refuses or fails to offer alternatives that would allow them to continue working full-time. In my meetings with residents, I have had many women express their difficulty in convincing their employer to agree to more flexible work arrangements, which relegates them to part-time status.

The gender wage gap still exists in Singapore

A third force may discourage women from entering the labor force with more vigor: the gender pay gap. In Singapore, this income differential is around average compared to other industrialized economies, at 16.3 percent.[12] To put this number in context, this gap implies that—for a worker earning the median salary over a 40-year career—this discount amounts to around a little more than a third of a million dollars.[13]

Of course, women’s career choices and progression paths, based on differences in personality and preferences, along with the value placed on workplace flexibility and societal norms surrounding certain gender roles. To compare durians to durians, it is necessary to account for these observable and explainable differences. Doing so halves the gap, to 6 percent.[14] This is smaller, but still nontrivial; after all, this is the average annual increment for about 2 to 3 years, which never goes away.

Furthermore, we do ourselves a disservice if we simply accept that wage differences can be accounted for, and hence excusable. After all, as I explained above, a desire for flexibility should be regarded as an accommodation to a woman for taking on additional, unpaid duties at home, not a perk that would engender (no pun intended) a discount to this worker’s salary. Similarly, societal norms about the appropriateness of certain jobs for women—such as in tech and finance, as mentioned earlier—can and should be changed, as there is little clear inherent advantage held by those possessing the Y chromosome in performing these jobs.

Clearly, Madam Deputy Speaker, these subtle forms of gender discrimination in the workplace—expressed in dollars and cents—remains real and present in the contemporary Singaporean economy.

COVID-19 as an opportunity and danger

COVID-19 has now presented itself as a genuine opportunity for us to seize upon and rectify (in town council speak) this discrimination.

On one hand, the pandemic has hit women harder than men: the need to take on an even greater burden of managing the household as they work from home has meant lower productivity, higher stress, and greater burnout.[15] Such feelings of stress experienced by those working from home even outstripped the amounts reported among front-line workers![16] If doing double shift as a woman was already stressful pre-pandemic, how much more difficult would this have been when parents also had to take on additional educational and childcare responsibilities during lockdown periods, such as the circuit breaker in 2020, or Phase 2(HA) this year. Hence, many women went from a dreaded double shift, to an unbearable triple.

But the pandemic has also starkly revealed how working from home was not just plausible, but more than possible. It strikes me that firms expecting a return to business-as-usual look increasingly misguided. Much like how the Black Death permanently catalyzed a dramatic realignment of wages in medieval Europe,[17] COVID-19 will induce a comparable rethinking of employer-employee relationships.[18] The future of work may well be irreversibly flexible.

Will government follow this trend, then, in institutionalizing clear, flexible work arrangements, starting with civil service? In addition to a four-day workweek, which my Sengkang teammate Louis Chua has previously raised in this House, we can consider an alternative work schedule: add an hour to each workday, which adds up to a long weekend every fortnight. I am certain that many working mothers (and fathers, for that matter) would value the opportunity to spend an additional day with their children, enjoy a long weekend, or even to attend to more mundane chores that are easiest to perform on a weekday.

Toward a gender-neutral workplace

Madam Deputy Speaker, I believe all of us in this House agree that the ultimate goal is straightforward: we strive for a Singaporean workplace where one’s gender has no bearing whatsoever on one’s ability to succeed.

This ultimately requires our leadership—our top administrators in the public sector, our civil society visionaries, and our captains of private industry—to fully buy into the this vision of a gender-neutral workplace. But in the meantime, to get from here to there, we will require policy nudges; there remains an insufficient number of female leaders to ensure that diversity and inclusion expands organically. That is why the demonstration effect from government is so crucial.

There are many practical steps to promote greater gender diversity in corporate leadership. Hurdles for women to participate in high-performance leadership training—such as a heavy travel commitments that preclude young mothers, or underweighting certain emotional and social competencies in assessing leadership suitability[19]—should, as much as possible, be removed. We could also consider a limited number of reservations for female representation on board memberships in GLCs, to preclude the possibility of total nonrepresentation. This is especially so since, in contrast to electoral representation where there is palpable pressure from political competition, similar pressures are often significantly weaker in the corporate world, to the extent that the gender composition of board memberships even matter to the decisive shareholders.

The rank-and-file need support, too. Under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, Japan has made enormous strides in increasing the participation of women in its traditionally male-dominated offices, by dramatically expanding childcare facilities for working mothers. In a number of non-mature housing estates—especially Sengkang, the constituency that I represent—the ratio of childcare and primary schooling facilities to eligible-aged children still lags the national average, because even as the absolute number of such facilities have grown, the number of children has grown even faster, resulting in a relative worsening.

Similarly, we can consider paid reentry programs for mothers and informal caregivers, to ease their reintegration into the workforce, post-childbirth or after a period of time as the primary caregiver. Programs can be designed to refresh and update skills, and tax relief can be offered to employers that operate successful reentry programs, to strengthen incentives for adoption.

And when opportunities have been offered, our women have eagerly answered the call. In 2020, more women have taken up board seats in statutory boards, companies, and institutions of public character.[20] Notably, however, the target of at least a fifth of board seats in the top-100 primary-listed companies was missed.[21]

Finally, going beyond participation, we should look more seriously at ameliorating the gender pay gap. While corporate governance matters are ultimately incumbent on the leadership of firms themselves, the Workers’ Party has emphasized in its manifesto that employers with 10 or more employees should report their gender wage gaps, for the same job, to the Ministry of Manpower. MOM should then go on to publish aggregated and average pay gap information for each industry sector. Remuneration disclosure guidelines for SGX-listed firms should also be revised to encourage the routine publication of the gender pay gap in their annual reports. The government should also render support to firms—especially smaller ones—for both the routine collection of such data, as well as offer strategies for how such gaps may be reduced in their workforce.

The Indian Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen observed that India has as many as 100 million “missing women”—a result, he claimed, of gender-selective abortions—which is a travesty not just on a demographic and economic perspective, but a tragedy from a moral, societal, and cultural one. But let us not be blind also to the missing women in our workplaces. There are also hundreds of thousands of missing women in our workplaces, a shortcoming that we can and must collectively resolve.

As members of this House may know, I have a young daughter. Like every parent, I want her to grow up in the best possible world, one where she is able to pursue her dreams—whatever they may be—independent of whether she happens to possess a Y chromosome or not. I hope that we can all agree that this is why all of us need to work together to realize genuine gender equality in our Singaporean workplaces, and that is why I emphatically lend my support to the motion.

[1] The term “Great Divergence” owes its provenance to the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, although its entry into the scholarly lexicon probably owes the most to the work of Kenneth Pomeranz. See Pomeranz, K. (2000), The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[2] This concept was devised by Hungarian-British mathematician John Hajnal. See Hajnal, J. (19650_, “European Marriage Patterns in Perspective,” in D.V. Glass & D.E.C. Eversley (eds.), Population in History: Essays in Historical Demography, London: Edward Arnold, pp. 101–43.

[3] Voigtländer, N. & H-J. Voth (2006), “Why England? Demographic Factors, Structural Change and Physical Capital Accumulation During the Industrial Revolution,” Journal of Economic Growth 11: 319–61.

[4] De Moor, T, & J.L. van Zanden (2010), “Girl Power: The European Marriage Pattern and Labor Markets in the North Sea Region in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period,” Economic History Review 63: 1–33.

[5] This view is not universally held, of course; notable critiques have been raised by Dennison & Ogilvie (2016), who argue that the relationship is rife with endogeneity issues. See Dennison, T. & S. Ogilvie (2016), “Institutions, Demography and Economic Growth,” Journal of Economic History 76: 205–17.

[6] Gruen, C, & S. Klasen (2008), “Growth, Inequality, and Welfare: Comparisons Across Space and Time,” Oxford Economic Papers 60: 212–36.

[7] Duflo, E. (2012), “Women Empowerment and Economic Development,” Journal of Economic Literature 50: 1051–79. It is worth adding that Duflo believes, however, that these relationships are likely too weak to be self-sustaining, and hence policy commitments to promote equality are called for.

[8] Data are for those aged 15 and above, as modeled by the International Labor Organization. Source:

[9] Participation peaked at 62.6 percent in 2015, become declining every year subsequently.

[10] Bresge, A. (2018), “Gender Gap in Unpaid Labour Means Women Work ‘Double Shift,’ Experts Say,” National Post, Jul 31.

[11] Liew, M. (2019), “A Cultural and Economic Challenge: Increasing Female Participation in Singapore’s Workforce,” ASEAN Today, Apr 8.

[12] This is formally defined as the unadjusted median gender pay gap, calculated as the difference between median incomes of men and women, divided by the median income of men. See: Lin, E. , G. Gan & J.Y. Pan (2020), Singapore’s Adjusted Gender Pay Gap, Singapore: Ministry of Manpower. The study cites a 12.5 percent gap in the introduction, which is not corroborated by the analysis in the paper, which reports a 16.3 percent gap. I went with the in-text number.

[13] This is computed using the reported median monthly salary of $4,534 in 2020, multiplied over a 40-year period. It is likely a significant underestimate, since it does not account for either wage increments or inflation.

[14] In all fairness, this gap has compressed over time, from 8.8 percent in 2002 to 6.o percent in 2018.

[15] Coury, S., J. Huang, A. Kumar, S. Prince, A. Krivkovich & L. Yee (2020), Women in the Workplace, New York: McKinsey & Company; Madgavkar, A., O. White, M. Krishnan, D. Mahajan & X. Azcue (2020), COVID-19 and Gender Equality: Countering the Regressive Effects, Washington: McKinsey Global Institute.

[16] Teo, J. (2020), “More Working from Home Feel Stressed Than Those on COVID-19 Front Line: Survey,” Straits Times, Aug 19

[17] Aberth, J. (2001), From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages, New York: Routledge; Hatcher, J. (1977), Plague, Population, and the English Economy, 1348–1530. London: MacMillan.

[18] Allen, T. (2021), “The Pandemic Is Changing Employee Benefits,” Harvard Business Review, Apr 7.

[19] Remarkably, women routinely outperform men on 11 out of 12 competencies associated with emotional and social intelligence, which research has shown can substantially improve workplace effectiveness. See Hay Group (2011), Emotional and Social Competency Inventory: A User Guide for Accredited Practitioners, Philadelphia: McClelland Center for Research and Innovation.

[20] Chau, C. (2021), “More Women Take Up Key Leadership Positions in Singapore,” HRMAsia, Apr 14.

[21] Tan, S.-A. (2021), “More Women Needed on Company Boards in Singapore and Globally: Panel,” Straits Times, Jun 1.