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Narrowing the gender pay gap: Do more for working mothers, say women advocacy groups

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SINGAPORE: More family-friendly policies and initiatives will be needed to further narrow the gender pay gap in Singapore, women advocacy groups told CNA .

On Thursday (Jan 9), the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) released a study on Singapore’s gender pay gap which found that in 2018, women earned six per cent less than their male peers in similar jobs. This adjusted gender pay gap is the wage difference that remains after taking into account factors such as the worker’s industry, occupation, age and education. It translates to a median monthly salary difference of S$342.

However, the unadjusted gender wage gap, which just compares the median pay between both genders, showed that women in Singapore earned 16.3 per cent less than men in 2018 inching up 0.3 percentage point from 2002.

This unadjusted figure is often used in international comparisons by the likes of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The 16.3 per cent pay gap is largely driven by the tendency of men and women to work in different occupations, the study said, as women tend to be in lower-paying jobs compared to men, who continue to be over-represented in higher-paying occupations.

Mrs Sher-li Torrey, the founder of Mums@Work, said that this issue of occupational segregation reflects the challenges working mums face. She said as the majority of women are the primary caregivers at home, they end up choosing or switching to jobs that are less time-consuming and offer more flexibility. These occupations traditionally pay less than those dominated by men, she added. 

“I have come across many women who were in the legal, banking, media or consulting industries who quit after having children due to the long work hours and frequent travel schedules taking a toll on the family time,” Mrs Torrey said.

Ms Shailey Hingorani, head of research and advocacy at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), agreed. The figure highlighted the lack of progress in encouraging men to take up equal caregiving responsibilities so that their wives can advance in their careers, she said.

Even a 6 per cent gap is significant, Ms Hingorani added, as the amount compounds when workers progress in their careers. While the difference in absolute amount is small for entry-level positions, the gap widens if you compare what senior-level executives get.

Women also fall behind in income when they leave their jobs temporarily to look after their children, Mrs Torrey noted. When they step out for a year or more and try to rejoin the workforce, she said the pay they are offered is pegged to their last-drawn salary, and they could lose opportunities to be promoted. 

By then, their pay grade would have lagged behind their male counterparts, who would have more years of work experience and received increments.

Instead of asking jobseekers what their previous salary was, companies should peg offered salaries to the market rate and the skills demanded in job advertisements, both Mrs Torrey and Ms Hingorani said. This way, women are not penalised for taking a career break to look after their family.

Mothers who return to work tend to have more company loyalty and maturity, Mrs Torrey pointed out, as they usually have carefully thought through the decision to rejoin the workforce.

IMPROVE MEASURES, EDUCATE YOUNG ONES

Currently, the Government has several programmes to address the difficulties women have in juggling both their career and childcare needs.

There is the Work-Life Grant, which offers a monetary incentive for companies implementing flexible work arrangements. Last March, MOM announced an increase in the budget for the grant from S$30 million to S$100 million.

Fathers of children born from Jan 1, 2017 are also eligible for two weeks of paid paternity leave. And if their child was born on or after Jul 1, 2017, they are entitled to take up to four weeks of shared parental leave off the wife’s 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.

However, last year Parliament was told that only 35 per cent of men took paternity leave in 2018.

Ms Hingorani said that while AWARE lauds the efforts the authorities are taking to balance the scales, there should be other measures in place such as legislating the right for all workers to request flexible work arrangements, equalising the amount of maternity and paternity leave and making it mandatory for parents to take them.

In response to questions at a media briefing on Thursday, MOM said that any legislation to tackle the gender pay gap must take into account Singapore’s cultural context.

The lack of improvement in the unadjusted gender pay gap, despite the 16-year period, shows that traditional expectations of women, like them being the primary caregivers at home, still prevail, said Cheryl Chong, a board member with the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations.

Still, Singaporeans should continue to push for more progressive gender norms, said Mrs Torrey, but admits that it will not happen overnight.  

Parents should also take the initiative to dispel any gender stereotypes such as “only girls do ballet” among their children, said Ms Chong.

“Maybe then we’ll see a mindset shift in the next 16 years,” she said.

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