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Commentary: The unequal, unnoticed life of a female worker

Gender inequality manifests itself in quiet ways that aren’t often picked up, in unpaid care work and unequal pay for equal work, says AWARE’s Shailey Hingorani.

SINGAPORE: In Singapore, women earn a staggering S$640,000 less than their male counterparts over a 40-year career.

The differential, which includes CPF contributions, was calculated as part of AWARE’s ongoing research on how the labour market treats women unfairly and what the government, employers, and trade unions can do to address gender inequality at the workplace.

The recent spate of conversations on Oxfam’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index omitted one of its most significant findings - how gender inequality contributes to economic inequality.

How does gender inequality manifest itself in a country where men and women have equal opportunities to education and jobs?

It takes three insidious forms: Unequal pay for equal work, unpaid care work, and the fact that the labour market sorts men into higher-paying jobs and women into low-wage work.


Using the Manpower Ministry’s Labour Force Survey data on median monthly incomes of male and female employees who worked full-time to calculate the gender wage gap over a 40-year period to cover an individual’s most productive work years, we found the gender wage gap has narrowed over the past decade but remains persistent across age groups, occupational categories, and hierarchical positions. 

A woman walks through the Central Business District in Raffles Place. (File Photo) Office workers at Raffles Place (File photo: Ngau Kai Yan)

In 2016, women earned less than men in all occupational categories except clerical support. The gap at the top of the career ladder, where women are underrepresented, is even worse. A measly 10 per cent of all corporate directors of SGX-listed firms are women, and they are paid a whopping 43 per cent less than their male counterparts.

What makes the wage gap possible?

Gendered social norms that inherently devalue women’s labour, and lack of policies that require employers to offer equal pay for equal work. In the workplace, women continue to face additional barriers - including gender bias, both conscious and unconscious, which result in unequal opportunities, choices and outcomes.

We regularly meet women who are discriminated against because of their motherhood or pregnancy status, women who are harassed at work, and women who are passed over for a promotion because of stereotypes that dictate what women “can” achieve.

READ: Overlooked and underpaid, women must speak up and put themselves out there, a commentary

It is easy to dismiss some of these claims as uncommon, after all Manpower Ministry statistics show only 57 pregnancy-related unfair dismissals in 2016.

However, these numbers would be much higher if the data took into account the full range of motherhood related workplace cases of well-performing pregnant employees whose contracts are changed from full-time to part-time, salaries reduced, positions demoted, and those who are forced to resign, shortly after their employers find out about their pregnancy.

Make no mistake, the gender wage gap not only affects women’s ability to make an income in their productive years, it also undermines their ability to save for their retirement needs.

A pregnant woman holds her tummy. (Photo: Pexels)

Singapore has definitely made some progress in narrowing the gender gap in CPF savings, but there is still a gap of around 11 per cent between the average CPF balances of women and men. With women living longer than men they need more, not less, retirement savings.


Despite moves to encourage shared responsibility within households and between households, and the public provision of certain care facilities, domestic work, including providing care to children and elderly, and household chores, is still considered a female responsibility.

This work, which remains largely invisible and unpaid, has a direct effect on labour market outcomes, particularly with respect to female labour force participation, the gender wage gap, and even the duration, quality and type of paid work that women can undertake.

READ: Are women still expected to do most of the housework? A commentary

In 2016, 78 per cent of prime working-age women outside the labour force were not working because of family responsibilities, including caregiving. The comparable percentage of men outside the labour force was a puny 9.6 per cent. This gap in labour force participation between men and women further widens their earnings’ gap and therefore their retirement savings.

“Why can’t women just try harder?” is a question we are often asked at talks and events on gender inequality, suggesting hard work and the right attitude as an easy remedy to women’s workplace woes.

When women try to stay in jobs that do not provide paid childcare leave by taking unpaid leave to care for their sick child, they are dismissed for being “unreliable”. When they try to find new work, employers do not hire them because they do not want workers whose attention is divided between caregiving responsibilities and work.

File photo of a woman shopping for groceries at a supermarket in Malaysia. (Photo: AFP/ MOHD RASFAN) These are some examples of the types of disadvantages mothers face at work, sociologists refer to it as the “motherhood penalty”, which numerous studies have quantified to be a wage gap of thousands of dollars between working mothers and childfree women over a lifetime.

In contrast, having kids does not affect men’s salaries, a recent study of careers of men and women in Denmark shows, and hardly affects their careers in terms of the type of jobs they gravitate towards. 

READ: 'Super mums' have one simple request. Don’t hinder them from returning to work, a commentary


A typical refrain of skeptics of the gender wage gap is that women just “choose” lower paying jobs, which conveniently ignores the structural conditions that lead to gender inequality in the first place.

Yes, it is true that women are over-represented in low-paying jobs in the social care industry and in cleaning, jobs considered to be natural extensions of their domestic roles in the private sphere.

It is not that women are deliberately choosing low-paying jobs but that the jobs they do are valued less than the jobs that men do. Empirical evidence shows that when a large number of women became designers in the US, wages occupation-wide fell by 34 per cent. When they became biologists, wages fell by 18 per cent.

Is this because women are seen as being of lesser worth? If so, the embedded misogyny needs to be tackled by not condoning any expression of it.

READ: Should a man be expected to earn more than his wife? A commentary

Women workers queuing at a job fair in Tampines. (File photo) MP Desmond Choo urged companies to work faster in offering flexi-work arrangements to attract more women back to the workforce. (Photo: Elizabeth Neo)

Another explanation for women’s over-representation in low-paying jobs has indeed to do with choice, but more importantly the social context in which they make the choice. 

Women are not simply choosing low-paying jobs, they are choosing the types of jobs that provide temporal flexibility required to attend to their caregiving responsibilities. These jobs tend to be shift-based, part-time, low-paying, and precarious.

A possible alternative could be to create more flexible jobs to allow employees of all sexes to balance their career and caring responsibilities so that those looking for flexibility are not automatically pushed into the low-paying informal sector.

READ: Married couples want better work-life balance, a commentary


Fortunately, we can still take concrete steps to address the gender wage gap. First, public policy can encourage private sector companies with more than 250 employees to publish their median male and female wages.

In Britain, employees have used published wage data to talk to their managers about the concrete steps - such as training on unconscious bias for all their employees, evaluation of hiring and retention policies - that they plan to take to make workplaces more inclusive.

Second, the Singapore Government should disallow unequal remuneration for equal work in all sectors of the economy. It should go beyond promoting Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices to providing employers with incentives to organise regular unconscious gender-bias training for managers and HR professionals, and to clearly communicate their grievance handling procedures to their employees. 

READ: Gender equality is not just a 'women’s issue', a commentary

(Photo: AFP/DOMINICK REUTER) Soon women in Iceland won't need to ask if they are getting paid the same as men for the same work -- their company will have to prove it AFP/DOMINICK REUTER

Finally, we must recognise, reduce and redistribute caregiving responsibilities so that they become a shared social responsibility. The provision of free childcare, increased investments in eldercare infrastructure, more flexible working arrangements, and paid family care leave are some measures known to reduce adverse labour outcomes for women.

As we continue our fight against economic inequality, let’s bear in mind that addressing gender inequality is of critical importance for realising a Singapore that cares for all.

Shailey Hingorani is head of advocacy and research for the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE)

Source: CNA/nr(sl)