Delivered in Parliament on 3 August 2021
Mr Speaker, gender inequality manifests itself in a number of forms here in Singapore: unequal pay for equal work, unpaid care work, and lower-wage work choices available to women to name a few. My speech today will touch on the unequal distribution of care responsibilities, and how this is linked to discriminatory social institutions and stereotypes about gender roles.
Situation in Singapore today
The changes in working patterns due to the Covid-19 pandemic have increased the spotlight on gender inequality that exists at home, and in particular, the difficulties women face in being both caregivers and breadwinners.
Strong societal recognition of shared responsibilities helps reduce the disadvantages women face in the workplace, including the “motherhood penalty”, “mum guilt”, and stigma that they face when they want to return to the workforce. Women will have more time for themselves, to rest, to pursue their aspirations freely and contribute even more to the community-at-large. Similarly, men too will be able to put aside their fears of being discriminated against at the workplace, facing backlash for their lack of perceived work commitment, in trying to take on greater responsibility for caregiving roles at home. Sad to say, we are not quite there yet, and the idea of equal, shared responsibilities remains, an ideal.
Earlier this year, I recall watching a documentary series produced by Channel News Asia, “Give Mum A Break!”, which documents three average Singaporean households and what happens at home when Mums are shipped off to a four-day three-night staycation, leaving Dads to hold the fort at home. They struggled to say the least, and while it was amusing to watch, truth be told, I have doubts in my mind whether I can survive being at home on a one-to-one basis with my two-year-old toddler for three nights straight!
Based on a study by market research firm IPSOS and United Women Singapore, close to 9 in 10 agree that household chores can be equally shared by husband and wife. However, fewer women, about 54%, than men, about 75%, say they are happy about their household and caring responsibilities, with a wider gap between mothers and fathers at 47% and 78% respectively.
We need not look further than Singapore’s official manpower statistics to see such effects play out. Based on MOM’s Labour Force in Singapore 2020 report, women represented 63% of residents outside the labour force as of June 2020, or 689,400 out of the total of 1.1 mn residents. Of the men reported to be outside the labour force, a mere 0.2% cited housework as the main reason for not working, which is the least common reason among men while this is in stark contrast for women, where housework was the most common reason for not working coming in at 21.5% of women outside the labour force.
Meanwhile, only 2.5% of men were outside the labour force due to care responsibilities for their own children and family members, which again is significantly different from that of women at 15.9%. This echoes an MSF Survey on Social Attitudes of Singaporeans, 2013, where 96% of married working women indicated that they were equally or primarily responsible for care-giving responsibilities, compared to 53% of married working women.
While this survey may seem outdated, this reinforces the societal standards that have been placed on women to take on a larger responsibility in their households.
Equal care responsibilities
Statistics aside, few would disagree that much of today’s unpaid care work is still done by women, as it is largely considered a female responsibility. While there is an increased awareness of shared responsibility within and between households today, there is much work that remains invisible and unpaid. This needs to be urgently addressed if we are to advance women’s development in Singapore, because such work, if it remains unpaid and unnoticed, has effects on the female labour force participation.
Recognising unpaid labour (whether carried out by men or women) must therefore be the first step in addressing the disadvantages faced by those that take on the bulk of unpaid labour for a household. There should be annual measures of the amount of unpaid work undertaken by Singaporeans, and this should be published as a supplement to national GDP data.
An International Labour Organisation report published in 2018 estimated that women in Asia-Pacific do 4 times more unpaid care work than men. In the local context, the study by Ipsos and UWS I referred to earlier highlighted that women are doing more unpaid domestic work than the men think they are. The study notes that while gender-defined roles still exist in the Singaporean household and are held by both men and women, the younger generation holds these views less. Entrenched patriarchal views can and are
shifting. Society is moving towards acceptance and being supportive of equal caring responsibilities. This is encouraging, but we can do more as we create our roadmap towards gender equality.
It is often suggested that to address the unequal distribution of caring responsibilities, we must begin by addressing internalised gender norms and stereotypes in redistributing responsibilities for care and housework between women and men. In today’s context, we need to be mindful that gender norms and stereotypes may be internalised differently for different groups. As suggested by AWARE, a review should be conducted via an intersectional lens to understand the differential impact it has on not just men and women, but those with disabilities, ethnic minority women, migrant women and so on.
Stock take of policies
As a starting point, as lawmakers, it is important for us to do a stock-take on our existing policies, to ensure that our care-related policies do not ironically perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce notions on gender roles. At the same time, we need to provide adequate support to all caregivers in Singapore to enable all caregivers, whether women or men to freely realise their full potential participation in society.
My fellow Sengkang MP Jamus has asked about instituting different tiers of childcare leave such that those with more children will be entitled to comparatively more days of leave. In my MOM Committee of Supply speech earlier this year, I too called for childcare leave to be extended on a per child basis and up to the age of 12, as our primary school going children would still need a degree of care if they fell ill, or simply to allow families to spend more time together. The COVID-19 pandemic over the last 1.5 years has also compounded the problem, where a stay home notice issued to children who are down with respiratory symptoms would effectively wipe out five days of leave for working parents, making it extremely challenging for parents to balance their work commitments.
With an increasingly ageing society, we also have a moral duty to take care of our parents. As of June 2020, the population of children between age 0-4 is at 183,000 as compared to 611,000 elderly citizens aged 65 and above, with our population continuing to age. Many companies have started to offer elder care leave as an Employee Value Proposition and I have asked if this could be considered as a statutory leave.
The Singapore Council of Women’s Organisation (SCWO) has advocated to make childcare leave and eldercare leave interchangeable. AWARE too has suggested that the Government could implement the statutory right to request for flexible work
arrangements, as well as making paid eldercare leave and family care leave mandatory for sandwiched caregivers. Similarly, the Singapore Alliance for Women in Ageing (SAWA) has called for the conversion of childcare leave to family care leave, which could allow other members of the family to help provide the necessary care for persons who need it. It is a worthy suggestion to improve the ecosystem of support for women caregivers in Singapore.
Broaden definition of caregiving
Additionally, changing family structures require more flexible guidelines for support such as expanding the definitions of leave and subsidies, to ensure that all caregivers are supported. For example, extended families providing care on a regular basis for children of our frontline workers during this pandemic. Or grandparents who provide care to their grandchildren, whom the MOH recognise as essential and would not be counted towards the prevailing permissible visitor cap per household, or to the number of social gatherings per day. These caregivers are currently not entitled to caregiving or childcare leave, unlike their peers who have children.
The reality is, caregiving responsibilities between parents of children go beyond the couple. It takes a village to raise a child, and our policies should provide due recognition to the village, and to go beyond merely adopting a so-called “practical approach to calibrating childcare leave provisions”.
More broadly, despite the release of the Tripartite Standard on Flexible Work Arrangements in 2017, true flexible work arrangements only became commonplace in Singapore due to Covid-19. In 2019, it was said that about 85% of employers offered some form of formal or ad hoc FWAs in the workplace. However, FWAs come in a spectrum, and clearly, the level of flexibility that was in place pre-COVID is dramatically different from what we have seen in 2020 or even today with WFH being the default work arrangement. As I have shared in my MOM Committee of Supply speech, is it now time for the Government to reflect the needs of today’s employees and employers, and legislate a baseline level of flexible work arrangement, so that we do not have to make the false choice of choosing between work or family.
Calling on employers to implement good practices and foster more family-friendly work environments may not be enough, particularly when much of caregiving right now is narrowly defined as childcare, care for disabled persons and for the elderly. Even if eldercare leave is available, and it is currently not a legislative requirement, some in Singapore may not be eligible for it if they are caring for a spouse and are elderly themselves. Caregiving should be as broad, gender-neutral and norm-free as possible, if we are to ensure greater equality for women in Singapore.
Challenges of unequal distribution of care responsibilities
If we do not address unequal care responsibilities, caring can become a drain on Singapore’s workforce. Caring tends to be overlooked in the workplace, leading to some having to choose between gainful employment and their families. In the near future, this could apply not only to women, but to men as well. This is pertinent because with life expectancy increasing, and slower population growth, we must begin to make changes so that employers can better support workers that have work and caring responsibilities.
One way is to ensure that managers are adequately trained to overcome unconscious gender-bias toward employees. This should be a mandatory part of workplace training if workplaces are to become more inclusive. Male-dominated industries should also review their diversity policy and enhance support in the workplace, including recognizing men as caregivers. Indeed, men are also sons, fathers, brothers and more.
Men may be concerned about being discriminated against professionally, missing out on promotions and pay increases, marginalised, or even laughed at for taking time off. Gender norms and stereotypes are also damaging for men, and while cultural and mindset shifts are important, institutional changes are also going to be necessary if we are to move towards equal caregiving responsibilities.
This brings me to my next point on the role of fathers in children’s development.
Role of fathers in children’s development
As a father to a two-year-old toddler, I am thankful to have witnessed his various development milestones over the past two years, and partake in the joys of parenthood, while continuing to stay productive at work.
Psychological research across families from all ethnic backgrounds suggests that fathers’ affection and increased family involvement help promote children’s social and emotional development. However, according to research by Dads for Life SG, there has been a continued lag in terms of fathers’ involvement compared to mothers, in Singapore.
Some of this, as discussed earlier, is due to entrenched gender norms. Teachers may call up the child’s mothers instead of their fathers, as fathers may be perceived as “too busy working”. A Dads for Life Fatherhood Perception Survey in 2010 highlighted that 39% of fathers surveyed said that society’s views on how men should behave also posed challenges to them.
There must be more attention given to fatherhood and to the diverse range of fathering practices, and for further local research to understand and support father involvement as the times change. We should not blame women’s education and careers leading to calls for more equal parenting, and instead be channeling more time and effort to understanding and overcoming the challenges men’s role in caregiving, including fatherhood. The last Fatherhood Perception Survey was done more than 10 years ago and is long overdue.
What can we do as lawmakers to make this change? This is where our existing care-related policies covering government-paid maternity and paternity leave run the danger of further reinforcing gender roles and stereotypes. When my son was born, as much as I would like to be alongside my wife on our parenthood journey as first-time parents, the mere two weeks of paternity leave wasn’t even sufficient to last throughout my wife’s confinement period!
The Workers’ Party has in our manifesto called for a shared parental leave scheme that entitles parents to 24 weeks of government-paid leave, to be shared between mothers and fathers as they choose, but with a minimum of 12 weeks to be granted to the mother and 4 weeks to the father. This scheme would replace the existing 16-week maternity and 2-week paternity leave entitlements. So we are looking at 24 weeks instead of 18 weeks in total, of gender-neutral parental leave.
This would encourage closer parental bonds with children while having positive effects on the relationship between the parents. Shared parental leave supports fathers who want to partake in the joys of parenthood and allows them the flexibility to take on greater responsibilities in child-care to support their wives.
Increasing infant care and childcare support
In addition, The Workers’ Party also has in our manifesto the need to increase the number of infant care centers to better serve the needs of young families in the respective town districts. The motivation behind this is multifold. Having adequate infant and child care places will allow caregivers, both men and women, to free up some of their time in the day and play the necessary roles of a parent, employee, and individual, without having to sacrifice career and retirement adequacy.
In my MSF Committee of Supply speech earlier this year, I noted that while the Government has increased the number of infant care and childcare places over the last five years, this is still woefully inadequate in towns such as Sengkang, which has the highest number of young children across Singapore by planning area, with 16,380 zero to four year olds and 17,600 five to nine year olds as of June 2020. As such, while there may be vacancies in the system today, this may not be so for particular areas with a higher concentration of young families.
Meanwhile, The Workers’ Party also called for childcare subsidies to be equalised for all children, regardless of the employment status of their mothers. At present, mothers of Singaporean children working at least 56 hours a month are entitled to additional childcare subsidies. This however does not take into account the unpaid care or voluntary work that other mothers take on, or those who are engaged in part-time work due to care commitments.
All these ultimately, shows the importance of state policies in enabling women (and men) who are key members of our families and society to be supported in their efforts as a parent, individual, and employee. Building strong families and societies must start with supporting parents with young children achieve their fullest potential all whilst becoming a more involved parent.
Mr. Speaker, there is arguably still a long road ahead of us before we can proudly say that there is strong societal recognition of equal and shared care responsibilities between men and women. Post the pandemic, companies should consider making flexible work arrangements a norm at workplaces, as many forward-thinking companies have already done so to boost employee productivity and promote talent retention. As individuals, we should not be afraid to challenge archaic gender stereotypes, and to support our own families to the best of our abilities. But more importantly as lawmakers, we have an opportunity to set the right tone on gender equality in Singapore, and it is imperative for the government to demonstrate leadership on this matter by setting right our current care-related policies today.