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“Macro” shifts and changing mindsets for women’s development in Singapore

Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law at the 7th Annual Women in Leadership Summit

  1. About two weeks ago, on 8th March, we observed International Women’s Day. And I think that you all would agree that there is much to celebrate. Around the world, outcomes for girls and women have been steadily improving.

    a) Within the span of 25 years, female enrolment in tertiary education globally has risen three-fold1.

    b) Today, over 50% more women have a seat at the table on Boards2 and in Parliaments3, than about fifteen years ago.

    c) Girls and women are at the vanguard of social and political change, leading the global climate movement; fighting to end sexual violence; and demonstrating exemplary leadership in crisis.

    d) Indeed, as the saying goes, the future looks poised to be female.
  2. Here in Singapore, we have much to celebrate as well.

    a) When Singapore became an independent nation in 1965 – not that many years ago when you look at where we stand in world history – more than half of the women were illiterate4, and many were earning low wages.

    b) Since then, we have progressed considerably.

    i. More than half of women in the labour force now have at least tertiary-level education5.

    ii. Women’s real6 median income has risen by about 32% in the last decade7 alone, and a majority of them are in PMET jobs8.

    iii. Today, we have a female President, and our current Parliament has the largest number of women in our history.
  3. All of this is good reason to cheer. But International Women’s Day is also a call to action to accelerate our journey toward a future with greater equality between men and women. In other words, we don’t treat this as a destination. It is a continual journey and the path must always be trodden, and we must always forge ahead.

    a) According to World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, it will take nearly a century to close the gender gap between men and women worldwide, at the present rate of change9. This is from the Global Gender Gap report, which looks at four key dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

    b) This is estimated to take even longer in East Asia – 163 years. Our younger generations really should not be made to wait this long.

    c) Here in Singapore and globally, we need to redouble our efforts to advance equality between women and men.
  4. But I say that with caution about how we don’t look at this as a question of metrics, numbers, or just mere statistics. Because if we fixate ourselves on rigid metrics of equality between men and women, then what we will get is but a quick, superficial fix, and we will sacrifice real, sustained, long lasting change. We have to be careful not to jump into this game of numbers. We must look at merit for merit’s sake, and we must look at how we can sustain this change overall.

    a) We therefore need to look at it philosophically as well, to push for fundamental, and what I regard and call “macro”-level shifts in our systems, as well as mindsets and how we influence and sustain change in socio-cultural norms.
  5. In Singapore, no doubt, we have not shied away from “macro”-level, systemic change, and this has been our hallmark since our early days of self-governance. 

    a) Our leaders have always recognised that supporting the progress of women is not only the right thing to do, but also necessary for our resource-scarce nation to fulfil its highest potential. 

    i. Our citizens, women and men, are our greatest asset.

    b) In 1961, the late Madam Chan Choy Siong, a pioneering woman politician, campaigned for the passing of the Women’s Charter in our Legislative Assembly. 1961 – that was sixty years ago.

    i. The Bill brought about a revolutionary change in our society, ensuring that women and men have equal standing in marriage, and the right to be treated fairly through protection against family violence.
  6. And this was revolutionary, bearing in mind that we became independent in 1965, and the rates of literacy and roles of women back in 1965. So in 1961, for this charter to be pushed through, was revolutionary, highly visionary, and very much ground breaking. Present-day Singapore must continue in this spirit – never shying away from “macro”-level cultural and systemic shifts when they are needed. Such shifts require the active buy-in and participation of all strata of society: The Government is one. But beyond that, businesses, employees, young and old, men and women.
  7. This is why Singapore launched the Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development in September last year, as a comprehensive, galvanising point and an effort to gather views from all stakeholders on how women can further progress in our society, building on the efforts of generations past.

    a) The ideas and recommendations from these Conversations will eventually form the basis of a White Paper submitted to the Government this year, charting how Singapore can advance, hard-code and institutionalise these steps, and progress on key women’s issues through potential policy changes and programmes.

    b) We have held many conversations for women from different walks of life – some organised, some more free form, some with societies and associations, others from the grassroots perspective. Many women from different walks of life lent their perspectives and helped us to see it through their lens, whether as a young professional mother, a caregiver, or a homemaker.

    c) What we want to see is a society where traditional mindsets around the roles of men and women are no longer perpetuated.

    i. For instance, they talked about quashing gender stereotypes so that women can flourish in a wider range of careers, including STEM-related careers, traditionally regarded as something within the province of men, shifting away from the long-standing mindset that women in the family context are the primary caregivers.

    ii. Many respondents also told us that they wanted better support systems and support networks for stay home mothers and vulnerable women groups.

    iii. Many of these views are rooted in a desire for a fairer and more inclusive society, where the roles of men and women do not stem from stereotypes and what society has pigeonholed them into.

    d) Building on these concerns, let me share four key “macro” shifts, which I believe can unlock important gains in enabling women to further advance in our society. They are:

    i. First, dismantling entrenched biases about women leaders;

    ii. Second, further progressing girls and women through mentoring and expanding networks;

    iii. Third, promoting shared responsibility in caregiving; and

    iv. Fourth, importantly, the role of men; encouraging men to be better allies to women.

    Dismantling entrenched biases about women leaders

  8. Let me start on the first point, about dismantling entrenched biases about women leaders.
  9. I spoke earlier about the need for systemic shifts.

    a) One of the systems or principles that many countries subscribe to, including Singapore, is meritocracy:

    i. the idea that everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or family background, should be rewarded based on their merit.

    b) One might ask: why then hasn’t meritocracy produced equal male and female representation in leadership positions, or at least come closer to it, even if there is still a gap?

    i. Are women not as meritorious as men?

    ii. Is meritocracy imperfect?

    iii. Or, are societies imperfectly meritocratic?
  10. I am inclined towards the third option, that societies are indeed imperfectly meritocratic. Evidence suggests that unconscious biases play a significant role in hiring and promoting decisions10.

    a) Such biases, including those against women’s ability to be leaders, could interfere with the assessment of merit in hiring and promotions, and ultimately affect female representation in leadership positions.

    b) Of course, data confirms that biases against women leaders are unwarranted.

    i. A 2019 Harvard Business Review study comparing 360-reviews between men and women, found that women are rated just as well, and in many cases, if not better than men, in nearly every area of leadership competency.

    c) Yet, too few women rise to positions of senior leadership in workplaces, and we must ask ourselves why.

    i. For instance, only 7.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women11.

    ii. In Singapore, 15% of CEOs are women, but there is still much room for improvement12.
  11. We need to make further refinements to the system of meritocracy to correct for the effect of biases and stereotypes.
  12. What can we do? First, we need leaders to be more aware of unconscious biases when hiring and promoting. For some time now, this has seeped into our unconscious thinking. The first step towards dismantling a bias is recognising it.

    a) We can start by observing if there are certain patterns in our workplaces.

    i. Are our male and female colleagues receiving the same credit for good performance?

    ii. Are women in leadership positions attracting scrutiny, and judged more harshly on their mistakes, compared with their male peers?

    iii. Is there a disproportionate rate of attrition among women at certain levels in your company? If so, why?
  13. Second, we can also do more structurally, at the national and organisational levels.

    a) In Singapore, the Ministry of Social and Family Development, under the patronage of President Halimah Yacob, established a Council for Board Diversity in 2019.

    i. The Council leads the charge to achieve a sustained increase in women on the boards of private companies and public organisations.

    ii. I mentioned earlier that we should not play a numbers game, and so this is an issue we must deal with judiciously. We want to see more women in boards, but without going down a path of tokenism or quotas, which would do a great disservice to women, and could unintentionally discount the real efforts and talents of women who qualify on their merits.

    b) Let me highlight a recommendation by the Council which can help companies and organisations to increase their gender diversity on boards, and that is to ensure that the nominating committee includes women board directors.

    i. This helps diversify the pool of possible candidates during board searches, and the skills and characteristics the committee looks out for in candidates.

    c) This is just one of the structural steps that can be taken within organisations, to counteract the effects of biases and stereotypes on the ascension of women into leadership positions.

    d) I am certain the discussions at this conference, where thoughts and ideas were exchanged, have also brought up various ways in which organisations can design for equality.

    i. And indeed, in different industries and companies, the stereotyping will be different, and the solutions will be different.

    Further progressing girls and women through mentorship and expanding networks

  14. Besides biases against women leaders, there are several other hypotheses about why women are few and far between in senior leadership positions.

    a) There is a theory that women don’t apply for promotions as much as men – that they under-rate their skills, or wait until they are absolutely confident, before applying for a promotion13.

    b) Another theory is that corporate culture, being a ‘Boys’ Club’, impedes women from networking and climbing the ladder.
  15. The evidence for these theories is not conclusive, and women’s experiences are likely to vary between countries, jurisdictions, industries and companies.

    a) But there is no denying that workplaces and communities can proactively provide more opportunities and support to women in navigating their career progression.
  16. This leads me to the next “macro” shift: “further progressing girls and women through mentorship and expanding networks.”

    a) Mentoring and networking are powerful ways not only to tap on the knowledge and experiences of others, but also to find solidarity and support in our ambitions and struggles.
  17. There are several excellent examples of female-focused organisations, not least the Women Leaders Institute and the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, offering women mentoring and networking opportunities.

    a) My challenge to the leaders in the audience today is to provide such opportunities within your own organisations, big or small – no effort is too small:

    i. Foster inclusive communities that put an end to ‘Boys’ Club’ culture and create space for women to feel confident that they can thrive alongside men.
  18. Mentoring and networking are not only important for working women. They are just as crucial for young women about to embark on their chosen career paths.

    a) Consider the much-discussed issue of the lack of women’s participation in STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and careers14 – areas traditionally regarded as male domains.

    b) For some young women, higher education preferences may have indeed been shaped by gender social norms or a lack of visible female representation in STEM fields.

    c) This self-perpetuating cycle needs to be broken, and our young women are not left out of emerging and rising sectors or occupations.

    d) Women-centred networks and mentorship opportunities such as those from women who are already doing well in STEM-related fields will be an important way to do this.
  19. One such example is a local start up, Tech for She, founded by Clara Chong, to nurture female leaders in tech and STEM, across Southeast Asia.

    a) Tech for She supports women in their careers by equipping them with IT skills, curated learning resources and workshops. It also provides a tight-knit, like-minded community, centered around learning, networking and growth on tech-related topics.

    b) I hope to see more communities like Tech for She blossom in Singapore, and elsewhere, in Asia and the world, in the coming years, for women to inspire, support each other towards personal and professional growth.

    Promoting shared responsibility in caregiving

  20. I have spoken thus far about the shifts we can make in education and workplaces to improve equality between men and women.

    a) But we cannot ignore what happens at home, for this too tremendously impacts women’s well-being and careers.
  21. This brings me to the third “macro” shift, which is the need to push for an equal share of domestic responsibilities. This sounds simple, trivial, and trite, but has deep seated meaning and impact.

    a) Globally, only about 2% of men provide unpaid care on a full-time basis, compared to nearly 20% of women15.
  22. The long-term economic effects of this disproportionate sharing of caregiving and domestic responsibilities on women cannot be underestimated.

    a) Besides the loss or interruption of careers for some women, others who stay on in the workforce while bearing the full weight of caregiving responsibilities face the pressure of doing “double shifts”, which could affect their mental well-being and work performance, and thus progression and earnings.
  23. In Singapore, we have taken steps to help caregivers strike a better balance between pursuing a successful career and caring for their families.

    a) This includes providing affordable, accessible and quality childcare and parent care.

    b) We have also provided support and positive recognition for firms that provide flexible work arrangements to help all workers, men and women, manage their work and personal responsibilities.

    i. Of course, the recent pandemic in the past year has given even greater impetus to flexi work arrangements.
  24. But these structural support measures, useful and good as they may be, alone will not change the status quo for women.

    a) We need to address the pervasive expectation that women must take the lead in domestic responsibilities; that they need to work twice as hard to “have it all”.

    b) The need for this mindset change was one of the most salient issues raised in our Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development.

    c) How can we become a society where more men are willing, and see it as their responsibility to be equal partners in the home?

    d) We need a whole-of-society effort to get there;

    i. Continued advocacy by every one of us, men and women, to promote shared caregiving responsibility and make active fatherhood a norm.

    Encouraging men to be better allies to women

  25. Men must play an active part in advocating for shared responsibility in caregiving. This leads me to my final shift – encouraging men, like myself, to be a part of the conversation on dismantling gender stereotypes and to be better allies to women.

    a) This can start from simple changes in how we speak.

    b) Allow me to share a suggestion from Anne Marie Slaughter, an international lawyer and author.

    i. When speaking to a young man at a workplace who expects to have a family, try asking him, “How are you planning to fit your career together with your family?”.

    ii. This is a question that is often posed to working mothers. Why don’t we expect the same of working fathers?

    iii. Let us start acknowledging the equal importance of men’s caregiving responsibilities, beginning with our language.

    c) While talk alone will not change everything, it can change the way we think, which can, in turn, change the way we behave, and influence a mindset shift in the workplace.
  26. Men are a key stakeholder group involved in our ongoing Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development.

    a) In January this year, fathers and BoardAgender Male Champions, who are advocates in the business community pushing for greater female representation in leadership roles in Singapore, joined the conversation on women-related issues in the home and workplace.

    b) A male participant pointed out how important it was for men to support each other to be better husbands and more proactive caregivers.

    c) Beyond playing an equal role in household chores, he felt that it was important for men to talk about what they do at home with other men, to normalize sharing domestic responsibility.

    d) I echo his sentiments. To dismantle patriarchal values and traditional mindsets on gender roles, men must step up both as equal partners, vocal allies, vocal advocates.
  27. The power of male allyship cannot be underestimated.

    a) The late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, summed this up much better than I can.

    b) Of her husband, Martin David Ginsburg, whom she described as “a partner truly extraordinary for his generation”, she said “I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his, and I think that made all the difference for me.”

    i. She was a leading US Supreme Court Judge who recently passed on. Her words echo where I think we need to get to, the role men must play, to ensure that women can progress to their truest potential.
  28. Like Martin Ginsburg, I hope that more men in our society will stand alongside women, speak up, and push for greater equality.


  29. Let me now conclude. I spoke about four “macro” shifts today, namely dismantling entrenched biases against women leaders; further progressing girls and women through mentorship and networks; promoting shared responsibility in caregiving; and encouraging men to be better allies to women. These shifts, I recognise, are not easy shifts to make.

    a) They will require us to change mindsets and undo the accumulative impact of years of disparity between men and women.

    b) But this is precisely why they are so important, to recognise the challenges, and why we require the collective effort of all in society.
  30. I have shared some perspectives about how we can achieve these four shifts today; but discussion is far from over.

    a) More ideas and recommendations will come up throughout this Summit, as well as the ongoing Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development which I mentioned earlier.

    i. I encourage you to participate in these Conversations; lend your ideas, give your views. You all represent the perspective not of women as a whole, but women in different stages in life, positions in society. We need the cumulative impact of all these views to chart real, tangible, sustainable change. We will take your feedback on board.
  31. With the Conversations and the White Paper, 2021 promises to be a milestone year for greater equality between men and women in Singapore.

    a) We do not want to see 2021 as a destination that we have reached. We want to see this as a continual journey.
  32. We have dedicated this year to affirming the progress and potential of women in Singapore, and recognizing all who have contributed to it, through the Celebrating SG Women movement.
  33. Within your organisations and everyday life too, I hope 2021 is a year of making bolder strides towards equality; bold enough that we may soon stop telling our daughters that the future is female. Why? Because the present already is.
  34. I look forward to the discussion with Summit delegates. I hope you have a fruitful discussion at the Summit. Thank you very much, once again, for having me.


1 Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The enrolment of females in tertiary education increased from 15.12% in 1995 to 41.66% in 2020.

2 Source: Grant Thornton Women in Business 2020: Putting the Blueprint into action. The proportion of women in senior management has risen by from approximately 17% to 28% globally over the last 16 years (2004 – 2020).

3 In 2020, globally, women made up 25% of national parliaments. This is an increase from 16% in 2004. Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union: Women in National Parliaments (2020).

4 Source: Department of Statistics Singapore. In 1965, the literacy rate of females aged above 15 years was 42.6%.

5 Source: Comprehensive Labour Force Survey, Manpower Research and Statistics Department, MOM. The proportion of females in Singapore labour force having at least tertiary-level education rose from 47% in 2010 to 61% in 2020.

6 Deflated by Consumer Price Index for all Items at 2019 prices (2019=100)

7 The nominal median income (including employer CPF) of full-time employed females in Singapore rose from about $2,863 in 2010 to $4,374 in 2020. Source: Comprehensive Labour Force Survey, Manpower Research and Statistics Department, MOM

8 More women are in PMET – Professionals, Managers, Executives, and Technicians – occupations, rising from 50% to 59% of employed females from 2010 to 2020. Source: Comprehensive Labour Force Survey, Manpower Research and Statistics Department, MOM

9 Source: World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2020. The Global Gender Gap Index measures the extent of gender-based gaps among four key dimensions: Economic participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment.

10 Source: International Labour Organisation, ACT/EMP The bureau for Employers’ Activities: Breaking Barriers: Unconscious Gender Bias in the Workplace.

11 Source: Fortune 500: The number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 hits an all-time record (2020).

12 Source: Credit Suisse Gender 3000 (2019).

13 Source: National Bureau of Economic Research: The Gender Gap in Self-Promotion.

14 According to a UNESCO report, only 35% of STEM students in higher education globally are women. This is despite STEM performance being more or less equal between men and women, prior to higher education.

15 Source: Women in the Workforce – Global: Quick Take, Catalyst (2020).


Last updated on 26 March 2021