Give Men And Women Equal Benefits To Attain Workplace Equality

It takes experience, repetitive action and extraordinary confidence for women to push-back on discrimination in the workplace

By Nick Jonsson


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When women are treated differently to men at work and at home, it makes it that much harder to attain equality in the workplace. A recent McKinsey study found that mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving during the pandemic, often whilst juggling work responsibilities. Women ranked higher than men on all fronts in regard to feeling excluded, pressured to work more, burned out and exhausted.

But if, as I suspect, the problem is greater than the workplace, what must we do for "men' to manage an equal workload at home? Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this ideal will be to change mindsets, especially the perennial belief that men are still the hunters for the family, and thus need to provide more, while women are gatherers, focused on community, household, and child rearing.

So the question I ask myself is, how can men receive a similar degree of empathy when tackling matters at home, in a manner that will entice them to take some of the load off their women? What benefits can we provide them with in the workplace, such as paternity leave, or treat them with similar understanding if they are expected to contribute equally to caregiving and housework duties at home?

In Sweden, where I am from, both parents are given 480 days of leave per child, and 390 of these days are paid at a rate of 80 per cent of your salary. In Singapore, where I live, the difference is stark. Men are offered two weeks of paternity leave in comparison to women, who receive four months of maternity leave. That means that subconsciously at least, the message is that men help less at the home and therefore, return to the workplace sooner, and that women should manage the children and their home lives. If men have no extra benefits or help, it's natural that women will have to keep running their homes. Instead, if men receive similar benefits, it is my belief that it will entice men to take some responsibility, and women will feel less pressure to sacrifice their own career advancements.

In Singapore, 60 per cent of women aged above 15 years are employed, and yet gender equality remains elusive, perhaps because patriarchal values and traditional mindsets about gender roles are entrenched in society. Women are still treated with discrimination, despite all the role models exhibiting their success, and that largely, women are viewed as capable contributors in the workplace.

It takes experience, repetitive action and extraordinary confidence for women to push-back on discrimination in the workplace. Farzana Shubarna, a director at a fast-moving consumer goods company, recalls the humiliating experience of being presented to her regional teams by one male mentor. "In the first country, he introduced me saying, "this is the regional director for operations and supply chain. She is here for diversity'." Shubarna says she smiled at her colleague's uncomfortable introduction and brushed it off. The second time it happened, she cringed as he introduced her as the token woman on the team. His third attempt to undermine her was thwarted when she reeled off her work and academic history to her new colleagues. "This is the right message to our team," she told him. While Shubarna admits that it is not the responsibility of an individual to fight systemic prejudice, women are often blamed for the gap in gender inequality, in part because they shy-away from reporting misconduct or don't push as hard as men for promotions or pay rises: a message underpinned by countless self-help books, seminars and confidence coaching specifically targeting female employees.

And for men, it takes working with women as their leaders to learn appropriate behaviors to not discriminate against women in the workplace. Despite stereotyping, men are not different to women in terms of leadership effectiveness. A study found that the prevalence of males in senior leadership positions is not a product of talent, which ironically, that premise has been found instead to favor women. We need men instead to emulate some of the more effective leadership behaviors commonly found in women, which could pave the way for competent men and women to advance in the workplace.

"You lead by example," says Isabelle Alvarez, president of the Belgium Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. "It is important to see people that are good leaders, to mingle with them, learn and discuss with them. It is about building resources, trust and relationships." Alvarez, along with Shubarna, are members of EGN Singapore, an executive networking group that I helped co-found to offer safe, gender neutral spaces to discuss issues with others in and outside your own industry. Peer networks that cater to professionals in senior positions are a good place to foster positive ideas about how to address gender disparity.

Another issue with workplace equality is that women who ask, don't "get', or they don't ask at all. In one sense, common sense would dictate that women are holding back, inept at circumnavigating perceived barriers in the workplace that prevent promotions and higher pay. And that may hold true to a certain extent as gender stereotypes stalk women from childhood into adulthood and arguably inhibit women's ability to ask for more. Yet societal expectations and perceptions are drilled in by education institutions, social media, community and family influences, so they are not easily shrugged off when it comes to a woman's professional life, according to Eileen Lau, managing director, ING, another of our EGN Singapore members. She says, "Like, "don't get hurt, don't climb so high, don't talk so loud, that's not very ladylike,' but boys are rewarded when they take risks and they are more aggressive, even physically. That behavioural stimuli you internalise when you become an adult in the workspace."

An often overlooked fact too is that women do not ask for advancement, and they also often underplay their personal value in the workplace. Insecurities stem from about the perceived penalties of being assertive, which manifest in a woman's reluctance to ask for more. It results in pay and promotion disparity because, although women are generally as confident about their work as their male counterparts are, they can be wary of self-promotion, which is something experts coin as the "backlash effect".

Lau remarked that, "If a male and a female colleague at the same level, in the same company were to go for a promotion on the same role, you will find that females tend to shy away from applying for the promotion or gunning for it or fighting for it, unless they are sure that they are at least 100 per cent qualified. For men, they tend to go for it anyway, even though they don't meet 100 percent of the criteria," says Lau who took almost a year to build the courage and "evidence' to back her request for a promotion.

This reticence to take leadership roles unless wholly qualified is only part of the problem. A study, "Do Women Ask?' found that women ask for a raise as often as men do, but men are more likely to be successful. The study found that women who asked obtained a raise 15 per cent of the time, while men obtained a pay increase 20 per cent of the time. This is reflective of a more deeply rooted problem of culture, one that goes beyond women not having the confidence to ask.

Deliberate inclusivity

Today, workplace equality is improving as gender diversity is tackled more seriously in the workplace. Lau says, "You can see pretty major shifts and changes in recent years, one of which is gender diversity targets. But there is room for improvement when translating policy on paper into actions." And Alvarez stated that achieving parity needs to be intentional in hiring, advancement, and in retention efforts.

Dr Patrick Liew, executive chairman, GEX Global Group who is also an EGN Singapore member, says, "Gender pay gap is but the symptom of many root causes, including biases in workplaces and in society." He argues that addressing gender disparity has to happen well before the boardroom, from encouraging men and women to share responsibilities at home, to actively encouraging young women to enter into traditionally male-dominated sectors.

Shubarna believes that to close the gender gap, education has a huge part to play. "It has to be holistic. People writing about it, people teaching about it… universities preparing young women to learn how to be confident in boardrooms, or in negotiation… just doing it at a company organization level, you're missing a whole decade of development of a woman's psyche," she says.

Peer support group networks (like EGN) play an important role in such education, and can lead to more job and business opportunities, or be a cradle of support in harder times. "In a network of peers, you tend to be more open when talking about your challenges, personal failings and vulnerabilities without feeling you will lose credibility in your leadership," says Lau. And importantly, what you learn from peer networks cannot be found in textbooks, says Alvarez.

In essence, I believe that in the workplace, gender equality will start by giving similar benefits to men and women. In my home country of Sweden, this approach has greatly increased the economic equality between women and men over time, and yet, a pay gap still remains. A woman on average takes home a salary less than 88 per cent of a man's, but that number is 95.5 per cent after the differences in choice of profession and sector are taken into account (2016).

Nick Jonsson

Co-founder and managing director, EGN Singapore

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