In our brand new series called Sofa Sessions, we gather groups of people to chat about life the universe and everything over coffee. Fivestarsandamoon.com is pleased to present the first Sofa Sessions: Women At Work!
Who are the ladies?
Sunita, 32, teacher, recently completed her masters. Peizhen, 30, events manager, lived in Singapore and Indonesia. Megan, 34, nutritionist, single mother of two young boys. Kristy, 27, director of photography, in a long-term relationship. Sabina, 32, editor, yoga teacher and feminist, & moderator of this Sofa Session.
Are Kids & Career mutually exclusive?
Kristy: My job is in TV and my work is very physical. when I start a family I will have to give it up will have to travel 200 days a year and its physically very challenging. I wouldn’t have chosen another career. I wouldn’t have chosen another career just because I can’t have a family – I can’t do anything else.
Sabina: Does it make you really stop to think about having children?
Kristy: No. Not really. I really would need to rely on my partner to really step up. It’s something that we know and we have that in mind. He’s not like thinking about changing jobs to teaching because we want to start a family. We’ll just have to look at it as I will have this responsibility now, and he will have another. I don’t feel like it’s an issue.
Peizhen: For me I prioritise family-first. After I have kids I could try to take up part-time work when the time is right. For me it’s very clear.
Singapore is an expensive town though. Do you think it’s ideal to only have one parent working and for a family survive on a single income?
Megan: To be very honest it is tough. But it also depends on your expectation. If you want your child to be studying in a private school, to see the best pediatrician, then you’ll probably have to work extra hard both husband & wife. But if you’re happy with some of the services the government provides. Some of the MOE schools are great. It took me a long to get my son into ACS but it’s $6.50 for a month of school fees. Or you can choose high end international schools and pay $4000-$5000. There’s government subsidised healthcare and then there’s high-end private medical centres. If you bring down your expectations I would say it’s possible to survive on one person’s income. But the key expensive things in Singapore are property and transportation. But when it comes to your lifestyle you can choose to spend $2.50 on a meal or $250 on a meal. So it’s up to you. But housing I would say is the key thing that couples can consider because it’s biggest expense.
Sabina: So you think it’s doable to support children on a single parent income?
Megan: In some cases, yes.
Sabina: Some cases meaning the people who earn more, la. [laughs]
Megan: Yes. If your husband is doing well, relax. [laughs]
Having kids: Emotional or economical?
How do you know you’re ready to have a child? Is it economical considerations or emotional considerations or both?
Megan: For me I met the right person.
Peizhen: The decision to have a child for me is emotional definitely. I’ll wait til it’s economically possible to have a family but [our lifestyle] may not be anything luxurious or extravagant. In Singapore if you really want to be a single parent it’ll be very hard with Singapore being very family-oriented. If I want to get a flat on my own I have to wait until I’m 35.
Sunita: For me stability needs to comes first, I mean a stable income. I’m not planning to get married so I’m thinking at the age of 40 I might adopt. And that would be when I feel I’ve reached a certain level of stability. There is the sense that I want someone to nurture and the awakening that I’ve received so much and I want to nurture someone else and another life.
Do you think that society stigmatises single mothers and do you think government policies help alleviate this?
Megan: Of course.
Sunita: Yes because If I know I’m going to be a single parent, I’m not going to eligible for a lot of the benefits that the government is going to give.
Megan: In fact I think single mothers should get double the benefits. Because you are one arm short you know.
[nods of agreement all-round the sofa]
Sunita: Yes. I was raised by a single mother and she definitely felt discriminated against when trying to get my sisters into school.
Megan: (a single mother herself) It’s 50/50, the response I get. If you respond as I’m a poor single mother then they’ll pity you, oh poor you. But if you tell them life is better than it was before then they are happy for you. My workplace is great. My children’s school is very sensitive to it in fact too. It’s other children that are the most insensitive because they don’t understand.
Kristy: Logistically, especailly if you have a baby in arms you need to have some support like a grandmother or aunt. It’s physically impossible to have a job and take care of a small child. You can be a single mother if you have very strong support from a grandmother.
What about the Dads? Sabina: Completely agree. Something I think isn’t talked about enough is what about support for the father? For example paternity leave? Fathers get very limited leave at the birth of their child.
(Working fathers, including those who are self-employed, will be entitled to 1 week of Government-Paid Paternity Leave)
Sabina: [To the group] Is one week paternity enough?
Kristy: No. And I don’t think my partner would be happy with that either. The unfortunate thing is that it’s not a perfect world. If the company says you get two weeks deal with it, then you’re gonna take the two weeks and deal with it.
Sabina: So if we could ask for what we want, how much is enough?
Kristy: I think 6 months for both parents is ideal.
Do employers discriminate against mothers?
Sabina: Do you know in Scandinavian countries like Sweden both parents get one year parental leave? They also have a falling birthrate and that’s one of the ways they responded to it, by supporting both parents.
Megan: But with this scenario you’re talking about in Sweden you won’t discriminate because both parties get the same leave anyway.
Sabina: Totally. And that’s on an operational level. But on a higher, societal level it also takes the burden of childcare of the mother and involves the father and tells women: “Hey you don’t have to do this all alone…”
Sunita: That’s very nice
Sabina: …And your employer will support your partner will support you.
[nods of agreement all round]
Sabina: Ah! In a perfect world! [laughs]
Paternity leave: Gahmen must do more
Kristy: I feel like that has to be a top-down initiative though. It can’t start with the company it has to start with the government making it mandatory.
Megan: But then you’ll also end up paying 40% tax like Scandinavian countries also.
Kristy: I would be okay with that because in those high tax countries healthcare is free and education is free and my husband gets a year off when I have a baby so I would be happy to pay 40% tax.
Megan: I remember for both my pregnancies my ex-husband had to go on company business trips within two weeks of my sons being born. It wasn’t as though the bosses threatened to sack him if he didn’t go but they certainly would be unhappy.
Sabina: So would you have liked his employer to be more supportive of him in those first few weeks?
Megan: Of course.
Is there a glass ceiling in Singapore?
Sabina: Let’s move away from discussing motherhood because there’s more to a woman than being a mum. Let’s talk about working in Singapore. Is it a level playing field?
Kristy: Depends on the industry. I guess. In my industry (film). No it’s not a level playing field. But… [long pause] that’s okay.
Kristy: When I first started out in production I said I’d work for free because I just want to learn. But employers told me “Why should I employ you when I can employ him and he can carry 4 C-stands?” And I told them I can’t carry four C-stands but I’m smart.
Sabina: Wow discrimination on actual physical strength gosh… Can you carry them now? The C-things?
Kristy: [laughs] Now? Yes I can.
Sabina: So you proved that your gender doesn’t mean you lack physical strength.
Kristy: Yeah. It’s much more tangible in my industry.
Peizhen: I’m a civil servant so I’ve never felt that way. As a teacher, no.
Women in leadership – The Double standard
Sabina: Have you ever experienced that if a woman is a a tough negotiator, she’s labelled a bitch, but when a man does it, he’s respected for it?
Sunita: I was reflecting on is there discrimination. Not in terms of a very obvious glass ceiling. But yes, when it comes to women in leadership. Because we are not used to seeing ourselves as leaders. maybe there is not enough of a culture that makes it okay for women to be a real boss. If you are you are nicknamed a Margaret Thatcher. To get to a leadership position you need to change your identity that I’m in charge and I make decisions. If let’s say there aren’t enough positive examples of women who negotiate then it’s very hard to change into that identity because we don’t have a role model to follow.
In my previous school our principal was a lady and there were a lot of complaints that she was nitpicking. [Megan mimes a woman nagging] Yeah, precisely.
Sabina: Was she a good leader in your opinion?
Sunita: Well, I liked her. And then there strong female characters who are labelled “abrasive”.
Sabina: Yes there’s a study about the word abrasive and its use on strong female characters. [The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men & women are described differently in reviews] When we are tough negotiators and stand up for ourselves we are called abrasive, but when a man is the same way he’s just getting the job done. Do you guys have any thoughts on that? Agree or disagree?
Sabina: And that ties into what Sunita was saying earlier which is that we struggle as women because we want to be accommodating and we want to be nice but leaders can’t be nice all the time.
The feminine advantage… if you choose to use it
Megan: Sometimes women have an advantage. It depends on how you exercise it. You don’t really have to be abrasive to get things done. You need to be assertive and make people believe in what you say. You look motivated, you believe in it and you are energetic nobody can turn you down whether you are male or female. I have to learn as well to choose the right words to use because we have to say the right things la you know. Sometimes what I do is take a step back and tell myself this is just work it’s nothing personal. No need to get angry or agitated. At the end of the day we all just want to get things done. Sometimes I believe women have an advantage depends on how you exercise it.
Sabina: Tell me about that.
Megan: Because in an aggressive environment you are not targetted. You know what I mean? How can a guy say something nasty to you? In a perfect world it shouldn’t happen. I don’t know if other women get into arguments but I don’t. I believe there is always a way to discuss things. Just take your time don’t get too agitated.
Sabina: That ties into a very deep cultural belief that women should never lose their temper.
Megan: It’s true you know.
Megan: Speaking for myself. If I had a little more balls. Maybe that would work better for me but it’s a personality thing. You’re brought up to be a little bit more… er… how to say… I think a bad word to use is submissive. But there is a way that you can work around it.
Working in a man’s world
Sunita: Since we are talking about gender bias. I read an article about second-generation discrimination [“work cultures and practices that appear neutral and natural on their face, yet they reflect masculine values and life situations of men who have been dominant in the development of traditional work settings.” Source: Psychology Today]
It said that women & men in general have different working styles but that the modern workplace favours the male approach. For example the dominant decision-making style for women is to weigh every single option, and gather all relevant information before making a choice. And if new information comes in later, to change the decision based on the new information. But the common work culture frowns upon that and calls it indecisive. Really what’s wrong with that though? It’s a perfectly legitimate way of deciding, but is looked down-upon as being wishy washy. Just different from a male way which would be to make a snap decision on the spot and stick to it.
Sabina: Perhaps both ways are good and really we need a balance of both.
Sunita: Yes. And when women operate in their way they’re criticised and told “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” Or perceived to be bad at planning or lacking vision. But we really are just exploring and incorporating new information as it comes in.
Caring for our elderly parents
Sabina: Something unique to Singapore and Asia is parental care. Unlike in the West, we don’t live in a culture where elderly are independent, or where it is considered okay to put your parents in a nursing home. So in some instances the burden of childcare and parental care falls on us. To look at it from a gender perspective, do you feel that taking care of your parents is more your responsibility than your brothers or the males in your family?
Peizhen: [Shakes her head] Not really. Traditionally it’s more like the son takes care of parents rather than the daughter. So it’s more like brothers are more expected to take care of parents, whether the parents stay with one of my brothers more than me. But I never thought that way though as a daughter. Because as children we will somehow figure out how we do it financially. My parents don’t expect us to take care of them financially. But in terms of the distance I still want to stay close to them.
Sabina: Mmm interesting! And Sunita you were raised by a single mum.
Sabina: Do you ever worry about the future. Say if you have to take your mum to the doctor, during office hours do you worry about your employer giving you time off ?
Sunita: I can always take it always out of my personal leave. I’m quite confident because I work in the education industry and they’ll be supportive. I’m not worried about my career but the sacrifices will be personal. Whether I can socialise as much as I’d like to. I have a brother.
Sons and daughters – who steps up for Mum & Dad? Do you think you & your sister are more responsible for your mum than your brother is?
Sunita: Yes. Because it requires a lot of empathy to deal with aging parents. Because they used to take care of you and now they are weak and you are like “When did you get this way?” You get frustrated you know. You wonder why can’t you hear what I’m saying why do I have to repeat myself and why are you walking so slow?
[everybody laughs and nods in agreement, clearly the entire sofa can all relate!]
Sunita: I don’t know if it is because my brother is younger. But I do foresee that I would be the one who would be relied upon to do the caregiving. Maybe financially it would be distributed equally. But the actual-hands on. If I have to bathe my mum, it would be me. [everyone goes quiet for a while] It is worrying which is why I think I only have six years before I’m house-bound. [laughs]
Editor: The good news is that the pioneer generation package is really helping with medical costs. [Benefits include medisave top-ups, more flexible use of medisave and huge subsidies at government owned clinics, hospitals and specialist clinics such as the National Heart Centre. Source: Ministry of Health]
Sabina: Importantly the cost of medical care of low-income elderly parents is of taken off their children. When my father was ill my sisters and I had to find ways to pay for all his medical costs and run around taking him to the doctor. Doctors don’t take appointments outside of office hours so sometimes I took half-day leave.
Editor: Many companies are now giving staff an additional 4 days of leave to everyone for the purpose of parental care.
What is your wish list to employers?
Sunita: For me it would be to have a structured leadership grooming programme for women in place and to be more sensitive to how our needs are different when it comes to leadership. Perhaps a mentorship, or a vision of what the stages are in the career? I would be in favour of confidence building programmes. For example recently I had to exert power over my tenants and I was so uncomfortable!
Peizhen: More facilities and support for new mums such as breastfeeding rooms. If the government wants women to have more babies then we need more support.
Kristy: A push for equal paternity leave because that is absolutely relevant to women at work.
Sabina: Healthcare and elderly care. I don’t have children but I know some people who are and are also supporting their parents at the same time and it’s a huge burden. So medical and healthcare in general is a huge worry living here. If anything happens you can’t work and you have huge medical bills to cover. Hospitalisation & surgery you can use your medisave, but what about outpatient say if you break your leg? Or for chronic illnesses? Or follow-up care like physiotherapy?
Sabina: Great, fingers crossed. Because it’s also like a glimpse into your future! You know I worry about what will happen to me when I’m older and my body starts breaking down. Outpatient healthcare and elderly care.
“I would like children to not be seen as women’s issue, but as a human issue”
Kristy: It’s just great to have initiative that says you can come to work and you can also be a mum.
Sabina: What I would like is for children to not be seen as a women’s issue but for children to be seen as a human issue. [nods of agreement all around] If you have a company, your staff are going to make babies and you just have to allow for that. Not everyone wants to have kids so maybe 70 – 80% of your staff are going to have kids so get real already. Companies like Disney recognise that to retain good talent you allow for this human issue of having children. To me it’s not rocket science. I would like the role of the father to be supported.
Kristy: Yes because the current system allows for the father to be like two weeks? sweet! Peace out, I’m getting back to work. You take care of the kids. And that’s cultural.
And to close off, I think honestly the issue comes down to how you see yourself. If you do not see being a woman as being a weakness then it will not be a weakness. Show that you can do the job just as well. Maybe a school-level initiative to teach young girls that they are just are good as boys. So it starts when they’re young.
Would you like to join us on the sofa? What would you like us to talk about in the next Sofa Session? Send your ideas to [email protected]