Women’s Motion: Making Our Pro-Women Policy Lean In – Speech by Jamus Lim

Mr Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I had—during the Workers’ Party’s motion on this matter last year in this House—spoken about a number of concerns about gender equality in the workplace.

To quickly recap, I had explained why womenomics in Singapore still had a way to go; married men are employed 1.3 times more than women,[1] and yet women earn 14 percent less.[2] I had suggested a number of practical steps to promote greater gender equality: these include reservations for female representation on board memberships in GLCs; increasing the coverage of childcare and primary schooling facilities in demographically-younger estates; paid reentry programs for mothers and informal caregivers; and publishing aggregated and average pay gap information by industry sector.[3]

Today, I wish to share a number of reactions in response to the White Paper on Women’s Development. Consistent with my earlier speech, I will focus on Area 1 of the paper, on equal opportunities in the workplace. The report highlights three action plans to improve female labor force participation: flexible work arrangements (FWAs), career mentorship, and flexible leave entitlements.

On shared leave provisions

Currently, Ministry of Manpower parental leave provisions allow for up to 18 weeks paid, of which up to 6 weeks may be taken by fathers.[4] The White Paper suggests that this could amount to up to 22 weeks, with the father’s eligible share can be bumped up to 8 weeks. While I think I can reverse-engineer this figure—essentially by adding up unpaid as well as paid infant care leave for each parent—perhaps the Government would be willing to clarify how this discrepancy arises.

Regardless of calculations, while a move toward greater shared leave provisions undoubtedly represents an improvement, the policy remains voluntary, and employers are only asked to consider FWAs “fairly and properly.” The only concession is that the consumption period for additional unpaid infant care leave will be extended for those in the public service, from within the first to the first two years.

As my friend Sengkang MP Louis Chua has noted in his speech, the Workers’ Party has, in our manifesto, explicitly called for a different shared parental leave scheme, of 24 weeks, with a minimum of half of this to be granted to the mother, and a sixth to the father.

On its face, these may seem to be a distinctions without differences: 22 versus 24 weeks, a maximum of 8 weeks versus a minimum of 4 weeks to be granted to the father.  But there is in fact a material difference.

By imposing a maximum that a father can take, the law, as currently construed, embeds an implicit assumption: that the father is the primary breadwinner. What if there is a couple where the women out-earns the man? In this case, it is financially rational for the woman to be the one returning to work, while the man remains at home, providing childcare. Fixing the maximum of 8 weeks for the father will preclude this possibility.

Of course, this is not to deny the physiological changes a woman’s body undergoes following delivery, and it is undeniably important that the body be allowed to rest and recover from the rigors of childbirth. Research has shown that the postpartum period can be divided into 3 distinct phases, with the 2nd subacute phase—where the body continues to undergo major changes in hemodynamics, genitourinary recovery, metabolism, and emotional status—lasting between 2–6 weeks.[5] Postpartum depression would also typically present itself within this timeframe.[6] This is why a 12-week minimum for the mother makes sense, without ruling out the father as primary caregiver thereafter.

We should also recognize that taking additional leave—even when fully justified and accounted for—is never entirely costless. Being away from the office for a longer period will inadvertently delay or inhibit career progression, and this is especially the case for mothers who end up utilizing more of their leave entitlement. This is another reason why  minimum paternity leave requirements can also indirectly help limit the gender wage gap from rising even further.

More generally, the report calls for FWAs to be boosted to cover 40 percent of all employees by the end of 2022, but does not offer any similar commitment for the expansion of coverage of FWAs for the public sector, only stating that the public service will “take the lead.” May I clarify that the government will be committing to attaining the 40 percent target for those in public service?

On encouraging mentorship of women

While I applaud the effort to expand mentorship, I have mixed feelings about how far mentorship can take us. Don’t get me wrong; I am a mentor, both voluntarily and professionally, to students, and I see the enormous value that close mentorship can offer. This can be a wonderful idea, if there are already sufficient women in positions of influence across a broad range of organizations.

But this is a chicken-and-egg problem; if potential female mentors available remain small in number, we run the risk of either overtaxing this limited pool of mentors, or a failure to break into spaces where women are currently underrepresented. What’s worse, we pile additional stress on this group, and may even inadvertently inhibit their continued career progression, because they become preoccupied with nonprofessional commitments.

The solution, it would seem, would seem to be encouraging male mentors to step up. This is certainly possible, but we should also recognize the more challenging climate men face when asked to mentor the opposite gender. In a post-me-too world, men have often become very cautious in both their language and advice, for fear of being accused of sexual harassment. They may withhold their most strident (but constructive) criticism, or refrain from banter, for fear of being perceived as sexist.

This point was made by Anne Clarke Wolff, the founder and CEO of Independence Point Advisors, a women-owned investment bank and advisory sometimes known in the business as “Salomon Sisters.” In an interview, Ms Wolff explained that the forces that led women to exit high-stress, high-remuneration jobs (such as those in finance) were not because they favored shorter hours or lower commitment; rather, they left because they felt excluded.[7] This absence of camaraderie may be ameliorated by genuine mentorship, built over social settings, like dinner and drinks. But many men today would be very uncomfortable engaging in such activities, even when above-board, with someone of the opposite gender.

One is also left to wonder how such opportunities would apply to women in more blue-collar or nonprofessional occupations. After all, the origin of apprenticeships was to transfer artisanal skills in tradeswork. Will the mentorship and networking plan apply with equal force to lower-wage domains and occupations?

On facilitating greater women’s representation in leadership

The report takes the position that, while it wishes to encourage and support women in achieving their leadership potential, it shuns tokenism, and in particular, the “unintended consequences… [of] imposing hard quotas.” On its face, this principle is surely indisputable; even champions of greater women’s empowerment are likely to be uncomfortable with being granted a seat at the table, only by dint of their gender.

Mr Speaker, my concern is that this principled approach downplays the recent research on mandated representation, and the role that it can play in shifting longstanding behavioral biases.

In one study, when gender quotas are randomly assigned—the gold standard for causal inference—in village councils in India, the prior exposure to a female leader gives rise to subsequent lasting electoral gains.[8] In particular, perceptions of the effectiveness of a female leader improves, and gender stereotypes about roles of women in public versus domestic spheres weaken.

In another study, mandated board representation in Norway led to an improved likelihood that women would subsequently secure leadership.[9] After the advent of quotas, gender gaps between males and females in terms of qualification would also diminish, and a female CEO would also be more likely to be appointed.

Thus, when mandated representation is actually pursued, both theory and evidence emphatically reject the notion that quotas would be ineffectual. Such policies may even enhance efficiency, because quotas could improve talent allocation across different occupations by overturning historical instances where such groups may have been deliberately excluded.[10] After all, nobody truly believes that simply being a man predisposes one to computer engineering, data science, or finance.

Overall, the body of evidence suggests that reforms of this nature have been successful in reducing historical inequalities, as power and norms shift permanently, even in response to temporary interventions.[11] All this points to something that is just as intuitive as a rejection of tokenism; that rebalancing the position of disadvantaged groups requires concrete corrective action—even if only for a season—to permanently shift attitudes and perceptions. Indeed, in countries that have moved to embrace gender quotas on corporate boards, there has been greater enthusiasm for such quotas, as well as a more professional and formal approach to board selection.[12] Even in countries where there are no quotas, there is growing recognition that market forces will not fix the problem on its own.

Undoubtedly, we must not go overboard with trying to squeeze round pegs into square holes. The evidence also suggests that firm valuations may suffer excessively when the existing gap between mandated and actual representation is larger, or when the costs of compliance are too great, due to the firm being too small to cope.[13]

That is why a limited quota could be a viable way forward. This would be akin to, say, a voluntary target of a third of board seats being held by women, and holding this target for a temporary period of 10 years. It would only apply to the largest firms, thereby minimizing the compliance costs for small corporations. And a third seems eminently attainable, given how female representation is currently about 18 percent;[14] this would amount to a doubling from the present share.

Here, again, the public sector can be the one taking the lead. Even if we do not wish to excessively tie the hands of employers, will the government ensure that all government-linked firms at least aspire to this voluntary target? And will the government consider requiring board-level training on unconscious gender biases—similar to the current requirement that board members undergo one-time training on sustainability[15]—for listed corporations?


Sir, around a decade ago, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook (now Meta), coauthored a book entitled, Lean In.[16] The book—which went on to spark a brief movement—explained how she believed that women had to be bold and embrace self-promotion, in order to succeed in the workplace. This thesis has come under some criticism since, but the central metaphor—the need to be proactive in pushing for a seat at the table—applies, in my view, to how we should be advancing pro-women policy in our nation.

It is in this spirit that I have found the action points outlined in the White Paper betray a lack of ambition. To be clear, the report represents a positive step forward in advancing the cause of true gender equality in the workplace. Hence, while I support the motion, I have found the report to be remarkably sanguine about the role that government, through the public service, can play in ushering in such changes in the workplace. Charity, surely, begins at home, and the deafening silence on how the demonstration effect of government leadership by rolling out the proposed actions decisively within the civil service strikes me as inexplicable and peculiar.

[1] This derives from a married male versus female labor force participation of 83 versus 63 percent  (data are from 2017). This is higher than the overall ratio, of 1.2, calculated from the 75 and 61 percent male and female labor force participation rates, respectively (data from 2020), which also suggests that females are more likely to exit the labor force after marriage.

[2] For the latest data in 2020. This gap declines, to 4 percent, after controlling for differences in career choices and progression paths. However, this nevertheless still begs the question of whether such variations in the unadjusted pay gap persist because of structural impediments or preferences.

[3] The full speech, including a host of references, is available here: https://www.wp.sg/gender-equality-motion-speech-by-jamus-lim/.

[4] The Shared Parental Leave Scheme (SPLS) allows sharing of up to 4 weeks from Government-Paid Maternity Leave (GPML, of up to 16 weeks), while the Government-Paid Paternity Benefit (GPPB) offers 2 weeks. Summing the GPML and GPPB yields 18 weeks, and adding the 4 weeks from the SPLS to the GPPB yields a 6-week maximum. See: https://www.profamilyleave.msf.gov.sg/schemes/shared-parental-leave.

[5] Romano, M., A. Cacciatore, R. Giodano & B. La Rosa (2010), “Postpartum Period: Three Distinct But Continuous Phases,” Journal of Prenatal Medicine 4(2): 22–5.

[6] Tung, J. & T.C. Tan (2021), “Understanding Postnatal Depression,” HealthHub, Singapore: Ministry of Health.

[7] Source: https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/against-the-rules/other-peoples-money-anne-xC2zsRNkD9o/

[8] Beaman, L., R. Chattopadhyay, E. Duflio, R. Pande & P. Topalova (2009), “Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 124(4): 1497–540.

[9] Wang, M. & Kelan, E. (2013), “The Gender Quota and Female Leadership: Effects of the Norwegian Gender Quota on Board Chairs and CEOs,” Journal of Business Ethics 117: 449–66.

[10] Holzer, H. & D. Holzer (2000), “Assessing Affirmative Action,” Journal of Economic Literature 38(3): 483–568.

[11] Milazzo, A. & M. Goldstein (2019), “Governance and Women’s Economic and Political Participation: Power Inequalities, Formal Constraints and Norms,” World Bank Research Observer 34(1): 34–64.

[12] Wiersema, M. & M.L. Mors (2016), “What Board Directors Really Think of Gender Quotas,” Harvard Business Review, Nov 14.

[13] Ahern, K.R. & A.K. Dittmar (2012), “The Changing of the Boards: The Impact on Firm Valuation of Mandated Female Board Representation,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 127(1): 137–97; Greene, D., V.J. Intintoli & K.M. Kahle (2020), “Do Board Gender Quotas Affect Firm Value? Evidence from California Senate Bill No. 826,” Journal of Corporate Finance 60: 101526.

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

[15] SGX (2021), “SGX Mandates Climate and Board Diversity Disclosures,” Press Release, Dec 15, Singapore: Singapore Exchange.

[16] Sandberg, S. & N. Scovell (2013), Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.