A cultural and economic challenge: Increasing female participation in Singapore’s workforce

The island nation’s greatest asset has always been its people – but up to 40% of its female population is currently left out of the economy. Is the government doing enough to encourage female inclusion in Singapore’s workforce?

By Maegan Liew

In the face of an ageing population and a shrinking workforce, Singapore needs all hands on deck to steer its economy forward. Yet, the female labour force participation rate in Singapore has stagnated at around 60% in recent years.

When ranked against the rest of the world, its female labour force participation places the Republic in 50th position, behind countries like Cambodia and New Zealand. The rate of decline in Singapore’s female-to-male workforce participation ratio is also steeper than in other advanced economies.

Singapore needs more women in the workforce

Increasing female employment numbers will alleviate the labour crunch that threatens the Republic’s long-term economic stability. It will create a more diverse workforce that can drive innovation and creativity, sustaining Singapore’s competitive edge in the global economy.

Since its independence, the Republic has made progress in raising female involvement in the economy. The labour force participation of women has doubled from 28% in 1970 to 58% in 2016.

But more can be done to boost female employment numbers in Singapore today. In 2006, the female labour force participation rate stood at 54.3%. Last year, it was 60.2%. Over a period of more than a decade, the proportion of women in Singapore’s economy has not undergone significant growth.

Source: MSF

Gender inequality in development and education is not prominent in Singapore. In the 2017 Human Development Reports, the Republic’s Gender Development Index (GDI), that is the ratio of female Human Development Index (HDI) to male HDI, was valued at 0.982 by the United Nations Development Programme. The gender ratio of its citizens with university qualification also reveals near gender parity in Singapore.

Source: MSF

Despite scoring highly in gender equality, Singapore’s gender gap in labour force is significant.

The problem is not that women are not entering the Singapore workforce but that not enough are staying on

From the ages of 25 to 29, the labour force participation rate of males and females in Singapore is comparable. The gender gap in the local labour force only emerges when women enter their 30s.

Source: Department of Statistics

Women are still often expected to take on the primary role at home. The responsibility of caregiving and housework also continue to disproportionately affect women, who find themselves taking on the double shift of working a job and taking on most of the household responsibilities.

This added burden of domestic work compels them to leave the workforce or reduce their hours to part-time employment. In Singapore, 83.4% of married men were employed in 2017. In contrast, only 63.3% of married women remained in the workforce.

But in part-time jobs, women are overrepresented. In 2017, women accounted for 63.8% of part-time labour force participation while men made up the remaining 36.2%.

Source: MSF

High female participation in the part-time labour force highlights the main obstacle preventing more female participation in the labour force; time constraints.  Only 47% of firms in Singapore offer full-time flexible work arrangements. Many women find themselves taking on part-time jobs not necessarily out of choice but because their full-time employer does not offer flexible working arrangements.  

Source: MSF

Greater support is required to help women balance career aspirations and family commitments  

The key to enhancing female participation in Singapore’s workforce lies in empowering women to juggle their home and workplace commitments. Work and family should not be an either-or option for women.

The implementation of flexible working hours would allow women to work around their domestic schedules.

The Singapore government has been leading efforts to enable flexible work arrangements. The enhanced Work-Life Grant was introduced in 2013 to incentivise companies to implement flexible work arrangements (FWAs) including flexi-load, flexi-place and flexi-time.

Last year, around 1,500 companies received funding from the grant and used it to strengthen their virtual infrastructure to allow employees to work from home, among other things.

The challenge lies in persuading more companies to take such measures and make arrangements that can secure better work-life balance for both women and men.

More quality care centres for children and the elderly can reduce women’s caretaking responsibilities

Working women subjected to the pressures of looking after the young and old at home invariably struggle to remain in the workforce. Government-supplied care is critical for empowering them to pursue their careers.

Increasing the availability and accessibility of childcare centres can help women better juggle motherhood with work. Singapore has already made progress in this area: the number of child care centres in Singapore last year hit 1,495, up from 785 nearly a decade ago.

Efforts aimed at making exiting centres more affordable and improving their quality will also help persuade parents to leave the care and development of their young children in the hands of these centres. Childrearing and the responsibilities it brings need not conflict with the pursuit of career aspirations.

In the face of an ageing society, the Singaporean government must also improve its elderly care infrastructure and increase provisions to cope with rising social needs. This will help reduce the pressure on women to leave the workforce in order to take care of their ageing family members at home.

Eliminating the pay gap and reforming maternal and paternal leave will give parents more freedom

Greater gender equality in workplace policies for men and women is also crucial to increasing female economic participation. Instituting equal maternal and paternal leave would give parents the freedom to choose which parent will take on early childcare responsibilities. This helps prevent workplace discrimination against women as a result of maternal leave requirements.

The gender pay gap is another area that requires attention. In 2018, the gap between male and female earnings was the widest in a decade. The median wage for women working full-time was only 87.5% of that for men.

This means that over a 40-year career, Singaporean women earn S$640,000 (US$470,000) less than their male colleagues. This financial inequality denies equal opportunities for all and implicitly conveys the idea that men are more valued than women in the Singapore workforce.

Disparate remuneration for equal work in the economy should be prohibited. Requiring employers to publish data on gender wage disparities would help identify pay gaps and improve transparency. The introduction of a gender pay gap reporting law would also lead to increased public scrutiny for companies that fail to pay their workers equally in the same roles.  

Source: MSF

Policy changes in the economy will drive societal progress

Leaving half its population out of its human resource and talent pool will be costly for the city state. A 2018 report by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that advancing gender equality could help expand Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP) by an additional US$20 billion, or 5%, by 2025.

It would be a setback to progress for the development of a modern-day woman’s potential and career to continue to be bound by societal limitations. The island-nation has made headway on institutional gender equality, particularly in access to education. Can it also ensure gender equality in access to gainful employment for its female population, regardless of their marital status?

This challenge has its roots in social value systems, but the government and companies can set societal progress in motion through the introduction of workplace policies that send the right message.