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Women advance in politics, but what about in business?

ONE significant outcome of Singapore's general election that has been largely overlooked so far is the increase in the number of women elected to Parliament. With 27 women out of a total 93 elected Members of Parliament (MPs), this brings female representation up to 29 per cent of the house. This compares to 21 women elected in 2015 out of an elected total of 89 MPs, or a little under 24 per cent.

This is a significant gain. For one thing, it brings Singapore to the verge of achieving the goal of 30 per cent of leadership posts being filled by women recommended as a target by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (Unesco) in 1990. If nominated MPs are added to the total, the addition of the Progress Singapore Party's Hazel Poa puts Singapore over that line.

While 50 per cent might be considered as just representation for half the world's population, women's parliamentary representation in 1990 globally made 30 per cent seem like an ambitious target when adopted, and many countries have still not attained it.

From 1970 until 1984, there were no female MPs in Singapore at all. Progress thereafter was slow initially, but has picked up over time. At the level of the Cabinet, it was only in 2009 that a woman, Lim Hwee Hua, gained a place, but in 2018, for the first time, three women - Indranee Rajah, Josephine Teo and Grace Fu - joined it.

THE PROBLEM OF PREJUDICE

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It took an effort to get to this point, with women's organisations pushing for progress and political parties taking the issue more seriously. The People's Action Party's Women's Wing identified a number of potential female candidates for the general election, and women were well represented in some other party slates: the Workers' Party victory in the Sengkang group representation constituency (GRC) brought in two of the women who contributed to the increase in female parliamentary representation this year.

It has been argued in many countries by those resistant to having more women in leading positions that there are not enough women with the right qualifications and abilities. Despite their objections, the growth in the proportion of female university graduates and the prominence of active, imaginative and hard-working women in many walks of life would seem to say otherwise. In any case, one look at the calibre of some of the men promoted instead would usually be enough to discredit the claim that no better qualified female candidate could be found.

The main problem to be overcome has been prejudice against women, but it has not helped that institutions that were shaped by men have tended to operate according to norms that were inhospitable towards women, such as having the feeling of being male clubs, and keeping working hours that were particularly burdensome to women who either wanted to give time to their families or were left with little choice but to do so. Women could have an equality in law that was denied to them by inequality in the demands placed upon them and the actual opportunities available, just as in other walks of life.

In such circumstances, Unesco's 30 per cent target for women's representation might be seen as aiming to establish women's presence in leading positions to an extent that new norms are put into place, and girls and other women will not feel discouraged from aspiring to such roles.

The progress made in women's parliamentary representation in Singapore puts what has been achieved in the business world in the shade. There is no shortage of women in the world of business. Women helm their own companies and fulfil vital roles in others, but in big corporations, their presence tends to shrink in the higher reaches of their structures.

The Council for Board Diversity reported in March that the largest 100 primary-listed companies on the Singapore Exchange had 16.2 per cent women's participation as at Dec 31, 2019. The government's target for business, set by the Diversity Action Committee, was 20 per cent, rising to 30 per cent by 2030. The results of the 2020 elections leave the corporate world trailing, little more than halfway towards a goal that Parliament has reached.

REAL EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY

The statistics for the business world show long-term progress, but it does not match what has been achieved in politics and elsewhere. For example, the Council for Board Diversity also reports that the top 100 Institutions of a Public Character have 27.8 per cent women's participation on their boards.

A greater effort to recognise and encourage women of great ability is needed, but also needed are reviews of the organisation of work and working environments that can constitute obstacles to the advancement of women at work from the very start of their professional careers.

Once there is real equality of opportunity for women to rise to leadership roles, targets to ensure minimum representation should soon become history.

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