I would like to thank all ministries and staff who have worked very hard on the White Paper, distilling the many diverse voices gathered into these recommendations throughout the past year even though the pandemic has brought challenges. It is a very needed momentum towards women’s equality. I would like to offer three more points today for practical consideration and later on I would also like to address something that has come up in the course of today’s debate.
1) Work and housing security for lower-income women;
2) Enabling workplace fairness & equality; and
3) On ensuring sustainable distribution of care.
While I welcome the recommendations in the White Paper to enable more women on boards and mentorship opportunities in PMET jobs, we need to pay special attention to lower-income women who struggle to access stable employment in the first place, and I believe we can do more to improve work accessibility for them as a society.
Non-PMET workers have lower incomes and lesser financial resources to outsource their care needs. For example, most cannot afford to hire domestic help. We should provide them with more support to help them reduce work-care conflict.
Although I’m happy that Government will extend the progressive wage model to more sectors, we need to make sure higher wages are not met with strategies by businesses to cut corners on the welfare of their workers which will have a very detrimental impact on low income women.
We can incentivise businesses to adopt innovative work allocation strategies, primarily targeted at low wage job sectors. These could be flexi-hours, flexi-shift, shift-swapping, compressed workweeks, Core and Stable Scheduling, to name some examples.
Now what is Core and Stable Scheduling? Daughters Of Tomorrow or DOT has advocated since 2018 for employers to take up Core & Stable Scheduling. What it means is managers give employees their preferred shift to accommodate their care duties at home. And since DOT has started enrolling employer partners in 2018, 126 companies have adopted this model successfully where single mothers have managed to plan their daily routines more efficiently; reducing work-care conflict where they do not have to juggle multiple different shifts within the same week.
To enable companies to adopt Core and Stable Scheduling, perhaps the Government can consider giving wage top-ups to workers who may not have as many care responsbilities at home to take the shifts during periods when home-care is most needed, usually evenings and weekends. Such a scheme could be called “Work-Care Grants” and some may argue that the higher hourly wages might cause evening and weekend shifts to in turn become more popular instead. However, similar experiments of international retailer, Gap, have shown that mothers with care responsibilities preferred to forgo the marginally higher hourly wage in favor of being able to be at home during care hours for the children.
In addition to stable shifts at work, lower-income women need better housing security. I hope the Government will look seriously into communal housing for single mothers and extended rental subsidies for vulnerable families who are striving their utmost towards social mobility.
Single mothers in shelters face massive anxiety from being told that they can only stay for six months. Shelters have to use this approach currently to ensure adequate capacity.
Those who are in rental flats face similar uncertainty when weighing income opportunities against loss of rental subsidies when their salary increases.
Many residents from public rental flats who sought my assistance, after they have employment, requested for reduction in housing rental.
After securing a job and income, many want to clear the arrears or other debts they may be owing to friends and family.
It is not uncommon for single mothers living in rental flats, that Daughters of Tomorrow works with, to turn down promotions from their employers so that they can stay within the salary band for their existing rental rates.
Doing well at work ironically becomes a disincentive. It holds back the progress of lower income women that we need to see the most.
We already know that the average length of stay in rental flats before families move out into their own purchased homes is seven years. Reducing financial shocks during this period, and helping the families build buffers is critical for successful emergence from poverty.
An automatic 12-month grace period before adjusting rent upwards in public rental flats – post-employment – will help these women and families greatly.
I urge the government to relook at the income criteria model for rental housing provision. We must also, at the same time, explore more stable and sustainable alternatives such as communal housing in the long term.
While at Daughters Of Tomorrow, I collaborated with AWARE’s SHE Project, which provides 2 years of communal housing for two to three low-income single mothers and their children. They offered peer support to each other and pooled resources for domestic and childcare needs, and this helped them to retain their jobs and build up their financial resources. SHE Project showed that mothers with longer-term housing stability were better able to rebuild a path towards financial independence. This model is already in use in the US and Japan and we can study their experiences to create a model that works for Singapore.
Second, on workplace equality, I urge the Government to enable SMEs to build more progressive workplace cultures by supporting them in the culture and operational transformation journey. The call for non-discriminatory hiring practices needs to come hand in hand with equipping SMEs better. Larger companies and MNCs often have sufficient resources and services to help them address harassment and discrimination issues, but many SMEs might not and they have very real operational challenges. I recommend that the Government provide subsidies for training on such matters, or for “diversity & inclusion” coaches to support SMEs in their culture transition. These do not need to cost much. For example, in February I moderated a panel discussion at NTUC together with TAFEP where HR and business owners from SMEs gathered and came to hear about ways they can better tackle workplace discrimination and grievances. The attendees who came found it very helpful. They saw that grievance handling doesn’t necessarily have to end up in lawsuits or firing someone, but could be opportunities for education of the employees within their companies.
We talked about the possibilities of harnessing the energies of their own employee community to advance this cause without incurring much expenses, as a form of internal corporate social responsibility initiative. The government can help rally business associations to do more of such sharing sessions with NTUC and TAFEP to facilitate best practices and capacity-building for better inclusion amongst SMEs.
Finally, the White Paper suggests some efforts to encourage men to take their paternity and parental leave. There is still stigma around men spending time away from work to take care of family members. Men share with me their concerns that taking time off from work for care obligations could compromise their chances at promotions or create a negative impression of them at work. One key strategy to change this mindset is to ungender care, and normalise care work for both men and women.
We need to create mindset shift upstream and one way is to expand the scope of National Service to include care vocations, and enlisting both young men and women. We can deploy young people based on their aptitude in either the armed forces, or the care forces. Those who are physically unsuitable for the armed forces can be deployed to care roles like respite caregivers, care coordinators, medical escorts, befrienders, mental health responders, etc while those with the desire and physical aptitude can opt for military positions.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many families’ caregiving needs increased. Citizens had to quit their jobs to care for the young and old at home. Including care vocations in National Service to support the community with their caregiving needs will help to reduce the stress of our people and on the workforce,, and more critically, for carework to be seen as a shared civic responsibility in a nation with a rapidly ageing population, in an ungendered manner.
This is not a novel concept. In Switzerland, men can choose to do civilian service instead of military service, serving in healthcare, welfare, environmental protection, research projects, or development assistance abroad.
If compulsory enlistment is too big a step for us to take for now, we can perhaps introduce a CCA in schools in the light of National Cadet Corps or National Civil Defence Cadet Corps, perhaps called the National Care Corp for boys and girls. This would help to socialise young people from young age early on to see women as equals, and themselves as caregivers; giving them exposure to carework as a meaningful vocation.
Deconflincting work and care is an urgent priorty to advance women. When men and society can take some care burdens from the shoulders of women, women can have more space on their shoulders for their aspirations and for daughters to stand on.
In doing so, we create role models for both our sons and daughters, and for the world that sees true and equal partnership between men and women.
And to this point about true partnership, true partnership requires recognising and affirming the the inherent worth of women in all spheres of life. It requires the eridication of the mindsets and narratives that create barriers to women’s worth being recognised. This narratives have conditioned society so much that often women doubt ourselves. We doubt our own worth.
When Minister Ong said earlier about the comments that relatives made. An innoculous comment to say “When are you going to have son?” could hurt a girl child very deeply, causing a wound of the perception of their self worth.
And because of this, mandated representation alluded by our honorable colleague, Assoc Prof Jamus Lim, earlier saying that its charity that should begin at home is deeply patronising to women.
In a world where innoculous messages are sent constantly to women to make us feel lesser, the last thing that we need is a cloud hanging over our heads making us wonder and doubt whether we gotten a position out of our own merit, or for anyone else to have that doubt.
So lets focus on doing the real work, the deep work, that may not sound very ambitious but important to help change the values and inherent unquestioned mental models that build this narrative that casts doubt on women’s self worth. We need to build up women’s innate confidence and the work that truly eradicates narratives and barriers are the ones that we need to do, so that they no longer stand in the way of women’s self worth and brillance.
Stop making us doubt, and stop making us choose. Deconflict our choices so that we truly can have it all. If not for us now, then at least in the near future for our daughters.
And with that, thank you Mdm Speaker. I support the motion.
Watch the speech here.