This will see the establishment of a new workplace fairness legislation, new Tripartite Guidelines on FWAs, and deeper efforts towards women representation in leadership roles.
The Whitepaper on Singapore Women's Development was launched at the end of March 2022, detailing the current progress of women in Singapore's society, as well as 25 collective action plans by the Government and the community in five main areas.
"These action plans reflect the whole-of-society effort required to advance Singapore women’s development. They aim to support the diverse aspirations of and challenges faced by Singapore women at different life stages, centering around our shared values of fairness, equality, respect, and solidarity," it was stated in the whitepaper.
The five areas of focus are:
- Equal opportunities in the workplace
- Recognition and support for caregivers
- Protection against violence and harm
- Other support measures for women
- Mindset shifts
The whitepaper was endorsed by Parliament on 5 April 2022 (Tuesday), following which, Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong shared: "Besides the concrete actions set out in the whitepaper, the government will continue to review and update its policies to advance this important agenda. But all of us also have a role to play - to change our mindsets and age-old stereotypes about the roles of men and women in our society."
In this article, HRO will focus on the progress and action plans laid out in the first area - Equal opportunities in the workplace.
A brief introduction
Over the years, Singapore women have made great strides in the workplace and are leaders in many fields. Among a series of moves, it was noted:
- Literacy rates of women aged 15 and above increased from 42.6% in 1965 to 96.4% in 2021. The proportion of female university graduates also grew from over one-third from 1960 to 1970 to around half since 1980.
- Women enjoy equal rights and protection under the Employment Act and other legislation.
- Efforts have also been taken to improve the representation of women in leadership roles across various sectors and job levels.
- With these measures, the employment rate for women between the ages of 25 and 64 years increased from 53% in 1994 to 75% in 2021. The percentage of women on boards of Singapore’s Top 100 listed companies increased from 7.5% in 2014 to 19.7% as at 1 January 2022, while that of statutory boards and the Top 100 Institutions of Public Character stand at 29.7% and 28.4% respectively as at end-December 2021.
- Singapore's adjusted gender pay gap improved from 8.8% in 2002 to 4.3% in 2020, lower than in the US and Canada.
- Female employment rate increased from 2019 to 2021, and women were no more likely to be retrenched than men. One positive trend seen during the pandemic is the wider prevalence of flexible work arrangements (FWAs), which help both men and women to better manage their workplace and personal responsibilities.
However, the whitepaper stated, while most employers do uphold fair employment standards, some workers still encounter discrimination or discriminatory practices.
"Women should not be disadvantaged by unfounded and erroneous assumptions that they are less committed to their careers or less capable than men. Employers and employees, men and women, must recognise and challenge gender stereotypes in the workplace.
"Reducing the gender pay gap also requires a multi-pronged approach that addresses the barriers to women entering and progressing in their careers of choice. This includes working with employers to build supportive workplaces that help both male and female employees balance their responsibilities within and outside work."
Existing efforts to promote equal opportunities in the workplace
The current efforts in place span three key thrusts — strengthening workplace fairness, enabling workforce participation, and facilitating greater women's representation in leadership roles.
Strengthening workplace fairness
The first key area under this thrust is enforcement. The Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices require employees and jobseekers to be assessed on merit and not on factors unrelated to his/her ability to perform the job, such as marital status or family responsibilities. The Employment Act also protects all employees from wrongful dismissal, including on discriminatory grounds (e.g. due to pregnancy).
The second key area involves education. "As discrimination is at its root an issue of mindset, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) will continue to work closely with tripartite partners and community stakeholders to correct gender stereotypes and promote fair and progressive employment practices."
Enabling workforce participation
This thrust involves FWAs, leave provisions and support for greater shared parental responsibility, and employment facilitation and training programmes.
Flexible work arrangements: Today, MOM and tripartite partners take an educational and enabling approach to help employers to appreciate the importance of FWAs, and equip them with the know-how to implement them effectively.
The Tripartite Advisory on FWAs provides guidance to companies on how to implement FWAs at their workplaces, including practical steps on how employees could request for and use FWAs responsibly, and how supervisors should fairly consider FWA requests and manage employees on FWAs.
There are also three sets of Tripartite Standards on FWAs, Work-Life Harmony and Unpaid Leave for Unexpected Care Needs that recognise employers who voluntarily put in place recommended practices to support workers’ work-life needs, including FWAs.
Leave provisions and support for greater shared parental responsibility: Working couples can take up to 22 weeks’ leave in their child’s first year, of which up to 8 weeks can be taken by fathers. Government, community, and tripartite partners work together to promote active fatherhood and family-friendly workplaces.
Employment facilitation and training programmes: Workforce Singapore (WSG) has a broad-based suite of employment facilitation programmes such as career trial and career conversion programmes, as well as SkillsFuture Singapore’s Continuing Education and Training courses. There are additional support measures provided during COVID-19 such as the SGUnited Jobs and Skills package.
Facilitating greater women's representation in leadership roles
As part of this thrust, the Council for Board Diversity promotes sustained increases in women’s representation on boards by raising awareness and working with stakeholders to develop a pipeline of board-ready women.
Next, the SGX Listing Rules require SGX-listed companies to disclose their board diversity policy and progress achieved in areas such as gender, skill, and experience.
Finally, the Practice Guidance to Code of Corporate Governance recommends the adoption of certain good practices by listed companies on the appointment of directors to enhance board diversity.
Further pursuing equal opportunities for women in the workplace
Moving forward, the Government will enhance existing efforts to build fairer, more inclusive, and more progressive workplaces that better support women in the workforce and those looking to enter or return to the workplace.
This will involve six points of action across three key focus areas, shared below.
Strengthen workplace fairness
Action #1: Introduce new workplace fairness legislation. The Government will take a stronger stance against unfair employment practices of all forms, including against women, by enshrining the established Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices (TGFEP) in law.
The Tripartite Committee on Workplace Fairness (TCWF) has landed on three proposals to provide more support to this group of workers, and is deliberating on the details:
- Require employers to set up formal grievance handling procedures, and to clearly communicate the procedures to their employees. This would better assure employees that their grievances will be managed well. Key duties include having a proper inquiry and documentation process. Guidance tailored for smaller firms will be provided to support their implementation.
- Protect the confidentiality of the identity of persons who report workplace discrimination or harassment. Only persons who need to know the persons’ identity for the purposes of grievance handling, investigation, and related proceedings (including the accused), or as required by law, should be permitted to know.
- Prohibit retaliation against employees who report workplace discrimination or harassment.
The TCWF aims to complete its work by end-2022.
Enable more women to participate more fully in the workplace
Action #2: Introduce new Tripartite Guidelines on FWAs by 2024 to require employers to consider FWA requests fairly and properly; boost adoption of the Tripartite Standard on FWAs to cover 40% of all employees by end-2022.
To make FWAs a pervasive and sustainable workplace norm, while maintaining employers’ prerogative to accept or reject FWA requests based on their business and operational needs, MOM will work with tripartite partners to put in place a new set of Tripartite Guidelines that will require employers to fairly and properly consider FWA requests, by 2024.
The Tripartite Guidelines will prescribe fair and proper practices that employers should adopt, such as having an HR policy on FWAs, and proper processes to assess and communicate the outcome of FWA requests. This will establish the norm that FWA requests will be seriously considered by employers, notwithstanding that FWAs are not an entitlement, it was shared.
In driving this, employers will be provided with templates, guides, and training; cases will be scrutinised, and MOM will consider focusing on larger firms that have a greater capacity to abide by the Guidelines.
Additionally, to build up momentum and prepare companies for the Tripartite Guidelines on FWAs, MOM and tripartite partners will boost adoption of the voluntary Tripartite Standard (TS) on FWAs, which sets out best practices for employers to offer and objectively evaluate employees’ requests for FWAs.
The TS on FWAs covers around 882,000 employees (~27% of all employees) today. It aims to extend the coverage of the TS to 1.33mn employees (~40% of all employees) by end-2022.
Action #3: Develop career mentorship, networking opportunities and training programmes for women at work and re-entering the workforce.
Business organisations and community partners have introduced a range of new programmes such as mentorship, networking, and training opportunities for women at work at different levels and those returning to work.
These include the Singapore Women Entrepreneurs Network launched in September 2021 to nurture and support
women talent and business growth; the BoardAgender's mentoring programme for aspiring women directors launched in July 2021, and the NTUC U Women and Family's upcoming expansion to its community mentoring programme, which will target women in mid-level management and returning to work.
MOM and WSG also offer employment facilitation programmes and services that provide support to all women jobseekers, including those looking to re-enter the workforce after a period of absence, depending on their specific needs.
Action #4: Encourage greater utilisation of parental leave entitlements.
To encourage greater utilisation of parental leave, the Public Service will actively encourage eligible public officers to take all their paternity or maternity leave within the first year of their child’s birth. Reminders will be sent near the leave’s expiry date to officers, their supervisors, and to the HR department, to encourage officers to fully utilise the leave.
The Public Service will extend the consumption period for additional unpaid infant care leave for public officers from within the first year to within the first two years of their child’s birth.
As stated in the whitepaper, the Prime Minister’s Office – Strategy Group (PMOSG) and MOM will continue to engage employers through the Singapore National Employers Federation and the Institute for Human Resource Professionals to share the benefits of parental leave and promote best practices to support employees in taking the leave.
Facilitating greater women's representation in leadership roles
Action #5: Revised Singapore Exchange Listing Rules and Practice Guidance to the Code of Corporate Governance to support greater board diversity, including representation of women on boards.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore has worked with the Singapore Exchange Regulation (SGX RegCo) and the Corporate Governance Advisory Committee (CGAC) to enhance board diversity of listed companies in Singapore. With effect from 1 January 2022, the revised SGX Listing Rules require companies to disclose their board diversity policy, including gender, skill, experience and other relevant aspects of diversity.
Companies also have to disclose their targets for achieving the stipulated diversity, as well as action plans and timelines to achieve those targets. The revisions considered feedback from SGX RegCo’s public consultation and recommendations from the Council for Board Diversity (CBD) to improve gender diversity on boards.
Action #6: Increase women’s representation on boards with efforts led by the CBD.
Other than developing and placing more women on boards, the CBD engages stakeholders on the appointment of women onto boards, carries out activities to raise public awareness of the importance of board diversity through having women directors, and works with partners to develop a pipeline of board-ready women.