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Wonder women

They seem to be able to do it all - raise a family, balance a demanding high-flying corporate career with the rigours of family life - but these Wonder Women are human after all, and like women everywhere, are getting by on sheer grit.
Saturday, July 8, 2017 - 05:50

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"Our parents started their own business, they had no parents to help them, and if they don't work, the whole family unit collapses, as there's no food. So they had to work." - Race Wong.

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Rhonda Wong (left) and her sister, Race.

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"From good role models, you learn how to have good work-life balance. And more importantly, you learn, some things have got to give. You cannot have it all." - Gopi Mirchandani

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Jane Kwang, assistant vice-president of global treasury with OCBC Bank, and her husband Altona Widjaja, vice-president of a fintech and innovation group with OCBC Bank, with their sons Ethan (left) and Eli (right) at the childcare centre at OCBC.

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"There must still be some 'self' left in the equation, so that you stay an interesting, all-rounded and balanced person." - Sharon Sng, senior vice-president for Indonesia with CapitaLand, with her seven-year-old son Scott

JUST 10 days after giving birth, Rhonda Wong went right back to work.

She runs startup Ohmyhome, a free app for HDB owners to connect directly with buyers, together with her former Cantopop star sister Race, who is also a new mother. "We are running a startup, like literally running, so we cannot just stop and take a break," says Rhonda, who gave birth in December 2016.

She says that it feels like the physical action of running, where "we have to work very fast every day… constantly chasing new milestones and meeting deadlines". "My day is more packed than ever before. I didn't think it was possible, but it is," she exclaims. The jury might be out on whether women can have it all, but to many working mothers, it must feel as if they're, at least, trying to do it all.

As we speak to working mothers at various stages in their careers, some things become apparent. The primary thing is that working mothers cannot do this without support. Support, in this day and age, comes from a constantly shifting and improvised patchwork of help from spouses, parents, parents-in-law, helpers, nannies, childcare centres and after-school care centres.

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Gone are the days of our parents' generation where they could hold down jobs without outsourcing the bulk of childcare to others. Today, work follows you home and across different timezones, leaching into your many digital devices and into your personal space. A common theme for the working mothers we spoke to has been one of trade-offs. Some have had to take a more scenic route through the corporate world, or delegate child-rearing to someone else.

Amidst the tug-of-war over a working mother's time and energy, the biggest battle takes place within - mommy guilt is a constant feature on the emotional landscape. The niggling suspicion that "I have not done enough for my children" can haunt working mothers who are struggling to find a balance between career and family. There is, too, a lack of role models to emulate, for women at the top continue to be a relatively rare breed. In Singapore, the proportion of women in boardrooms of Singapore-listed companies was 9.7 per cent as at end-June 2016. This was an increase from 8.3 per cent as at end-2013, but we still lag other places such as the United Kingdom and Hong Kong.

And for all the acrobatics of working and mothering, what does having XX chromosomes get you? A nice, hefty pay gap. Female directors of SGX-listed companies earned 56.8 per cent of male directors' remuneration on average, the NUS Business School's Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations found in March 2017.

It is not as if having a career is an optional vanity for a woman today. A survey by online employment marketplace JobStreet in 2016 found that 69 per cent of working mothers in Singapore would quit, if they have the option. They are working out of necessity - to support their family, plan for retirement and to be financially independent.

There are success stories, of course, of women who have been able to find the right balance, and we have featured them here.

They might not, however, represent the larger group of women who lack the resources to pay for childcare, or are unable to cobble together adequate support from those around them.

The 2016 JobStreet survey, which polled 480 women in Singapore, found that 75 per cent of working mothers spend less than 10 hours with their children on a work week.

Clearly, Something Must Be Done. Today, governments and corporations have begun to grapple with what that Something should be - better working arrangements, or in-house childcare for companies, or more support for external childcare programmes.

As they wait for Something To Be Done, working mothers will do what mothers have always done, which is to Get On With Things. In this feature, we look at some of these women, and how they're dealing with work and parenthood.


Adding motherhood to the mix

RUNNING a startup is challenging enough, but Rhonda Wong, 31, and her sister, Race, 34, have doubled down on the endeavour by adding motherhood to the mix.

The sisters, both of whom are new mothers, run Ohmyhome - a free app that lets HDB owners connect directly with buyers.

Rhonda says: "I'm so used to people telling me things are tough and I still do them, especially in work, sports - everything."

In the morning, she's up at 6.30 to express milk and play with her six-month-old baby Ashton for 10 minutes before she's off to work.

In the afternoon, she rushes home for lunch, breastfeeds the baby or expresses breast milk and then zips back to work. She leaves the office by 7.30pm, goes home for dinner and feeds her son again. She resumes working at 8.30pm till 11.30pm when she expresses breast milk one more time before she heads to bed. "I have been pretty blessed as I was able to work even after delivery. But it's very tiring as every night, I'm not sleeping very well. I'm still waking up every night to feed Ashton," she says.

A nanny, Jane, looks after her baby while she's at work. She says: "There's no way I can have this routine, of going to work, without Jane. I have my parents at home too. They play with baby, bring him for walks. But I would never want my parents to have to do all the work when (they are) retired."

The sisters had started Ohmyhome before they became pregnant, and naturally, others were concerned about how they would cope.

Says Rhonda: "We have a very caring and encouraging group of investors. They like the business we do, they like the way we work, but there are also concerns (about) when you are moms, how are you going to juggle, because you should spend time with the child. I think by now they realise that I do work a lot even as a mom." The sisters feel that their parents have shown them that juggling both career and family is possible.

Race, who formed Cantopop duo 2R with her elder sister Rosanne in the 2000s, just gave birth to baby girl Cara at the end of May.

She says: "Our parents started their own business, they had no parents to help them, and if they don't work, the whole family unit collapses, as there's no food. So they had to work."

Rhonda too has learnt to work more effectively and productively, as "you don't get more time". She adds: "You only have 24 hours a day. You either have 24 hours for your kid or 24 hours for your work or a balance in between. So you learn to just do things faster and better."

She feels that she can't say that she has it all and that her definition of her "all" now is very different compared to before she had her baby. She says: "My 'all' now is my work, my family and my closest friends. As I get more used to my routine, I can start throwing in things like rock-climbing and tennis once a week. As I get more used to this, I think I can start having a more active lifestyle."


Living with trade-offs

AT TIMES, Gopi Mirchandani, 41, is away from home for weeks on end. Her three-year-old son sometimes sees her more on screen than in the flesh. "He's now very used to it. From the get-go, he's seen his mom on FaceTime in different countries," says Ms Mirchandani, CEO and head of client group Asia (ex-Japan) of NN Investment Partners in Singapore. "It's always about the airport and the airlines. I would always give him a call just before I board so that he can see the aeroplane that I'm getting on to because that excites little boys."

Ms Mirchandani started her career as a lawyer, before switching over to the financial services industry where she worked in compliance and legal, and then in business development.

Having a child at the age of 38 was the trade-off she had to make for having a trailblazing career before that.

Her travelling schedule had been packed before, and she's had to travel even more after the birth of her son. "But I was able to do that only because I have a very supportive and liberal husband who is very hands-on. Nowadays, fathers are very hands-on and take equal responsibility for parenting," she says.

She too relies on a helper, another trade-off she has had to make. "As a full-time working mom, I realised that my young child is not going to spend most of his time with me and I had to delegate caregiving to help who are not related to me. "That was a difficult call as it meant that my baby could be close to my helper and perhaps even closer to her than to me. It was a trade-off I had to make if I wanted to continue working full-time and I had to be mentally strong to do it."

Ms Mirchandani feels that the work environment matters as well, such as her current workplace, where women make up more than 50 per cent of its employees and 60 per cent of its executive committee. She says: "I feel it is important to develop a workplace which is not biased towards any gender. I have seen that in making investment decisions for our clients, the best ideas come from diverse perspectives. And when I look around my workplace, I am glad to see that diversity. I am also motivated to perform because I know I will be recognised for my contribution regardless of my gender."

Ms Mirchandani, who has several role models, feels that it is important for women to have good role models and that women should not be afraid to seek them out. "From good role models, you learn how to have good work-life balance. And more importantly, you learn, some things have got to give. And you must be willing to let go. You cannot have it all," she says.

She describes women who are successful as swans, where "on top is a state of elegance, not a hair out of place, but before she comes into the room, there's probably a gazillion things that have gone on in her mind".

She adds: "When you see people like that, it's important for you to make that connection and not be afraid to ask them what are the tips for being able to juggle everything successfully. "Then they will share with you and you realise that they are human too. That's when you realise there's no perfect act up there. Everyone gets by, but there are tips to get by."

One of the tips is to learn how to make those trade-offs. She quips: "If you don't accept those trade-offs, you will be a very unhappy person."


A constant balancing act

JANE KWANG and her husband Altona Widjaja are raising their two sons, aged three and five, without a helper. This, the couple has found, requires constantly juggling the twin demands of parenthood and their respective careers.

Ms Kwang, 33, assistant vice-president of global treasury with OCBC Bank, says: "Motherhood is a journey that runs parallel to your career. At any point in time, you need to constantly think what takes priority. Once you have decided, make sure you don't neglect the second option."

She and her husband feel that it is crucial, at this point in time, for their kids to be nurtured in a loving, encouraging manner and taught to build good habits - which is why it is so important to leave work on time and spend quality time with them.

Time is finite, so you have to be productive, says Mr Widjaja, 35. The vice-president of a fintech and innovation group with OCBC Bank uses his lunchtime to catch up on his work.

And when there are project milestones to meet or when certain opportunities are presented at work, they work it out between themselves to ensure they do not neglect or forgo any opportunities.

Like a tag team, they take turns to be around whenever there is urgent work or business travel.

"We share each other's calendar and we see if I need to travel at this date, whether she can be around and also the other way round," Mr Widjaja says.

Ms Kwang says that it is a constant rebalancing of career and family for both herself and her spouse. "Sometimes due to work requirements, career may have a higher priority for a period of time. During those periods, ideally my spouse should be able to commit to having family as a higher priority and vice versa," she says.

In the juggling of parenthood and career, building rapport and trust with bosses and colleagues is important. This is so that the boss knows that "you would deliver your deliverables on time" based on past experience, Ms Kwang says.

Having an on-site childcare at their workplace provides convenience too as both of them have the same employer.

Ms Kwang says: "We would not be able to leave at 6.45pm and still pick up the kids if, let's say, my kids are at a childcare somewhere near home."

The couple do not believe in doing everything for their kids, so they have trained them to be independent from a young age. Their sons, Eli and Ethan, can pack their own bags for childcare.

"Initially, it may be tough; you have to repeat it again and again, like a broken record," Ms Kwang says. It takes time, but it pays off, as shown by his elder son, Eli, who can bathe and dress himself, she notes.

"At home, it also shows. When they play with their toys - we don't have a helper - they have to clean up because we are not going to be cleaning up after them," Ms Kwang says.

"If from young, you are always doing things for them or someone is there doing things for them, to achieve this level of independence at this early age would be difficult."

All these things take time, but Ms Kwang reckons that sacrificing "me" time, such as going to the gym or doing yoga, is still rewarding, as she is still able to "keep up the same productivity at work and yet spend time with the family".

"After all, they won't be kids forever. When they go to school, I'm sure they don't want me already, so I can have all the "me" time I want," she says, with a chuckle.


Changing gears for control

Sharon Sng, 44, used to put in 100 to 120 hours of work a week at the office and pull all-nighters for more than half of her 12 years in investment banking.

About six years ago, she switched over to corporate work, which gave her more control of her time and made it easier for her to manage her career and motherhood.

Currently serving as senior vice-president for Indonesia with CapitaLand, Ms Sng says: "With those hours and being at the beck and call of the clients, it was a challenge to continue in the same career path as a mother, more because I was not prepared to delegate too much of the child-caring to someone else. "I knew I wanted to work, but at the same time, I didn't want to be a weekend mother only. It was a conscious decision to make the switch to the corporate side, which allowed me more control of my schedule."

During her son Scott's early years, she relied on support from her Hong Kong-based mother who flew into Singapore, and a helper. For times when her mother was overseas, she hired a nanny who would speak Mandarin to her son for four hours daily.

When Scott entered Primary One in 2016, it coincided with her 58-year-old British husband's retirement after 33 years in banking. That has worked out well, with her husband being there for their son on a full-time basis.

Ms Sng's analytical skills, so critical to her work, also come in handy when she manages the inner workings of her household, such as planning her child's schedule and preparing for contingencies.

What is important, she believes, is having established routines, such as bedtime stories when he'd been younger, and walking her son to school in the morning.

She feels being fulfilled as a working mother should include deriving satisfaction from work and family, as well as from within one's own person. "There must still be some 'self' left in the equation, so that you stay an interesting, all-rounded and balanced person," she says.

Some working mothers feel that they are constantly making sacrifices for work and family, she notes. "There are so many parties who are demanding time and attention from them that they don't have any time for themselves, which may result in frustration or feeling constantly stressed."

Ms Sng, who is an active member of two wine societies in Singapore, feels it is important for working mothers not to lose sight of themselves and to maintain at least a hobby outside of home and work.

The exercise enthusiast was elected president of the International Wine & Food Society of Singapore in March 2017 and serves on the advocacy and research committee for Singapore Institute of Directors.

When asked if women can have it all, Ms Sng says it is possible. "You just need to set your goals, understand and accept within yourself that priorities will change within a day, a week, a year. And as long as you have made a considered decision, stick with it and be happy.

"If you are happy with what you do and the family life you have, you are successful in your own context, in your own work and in your own life. That's the most important thing."

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