The Three Paradoxes: Working Women in Singapore

Jean Lee S.K., Kathleen Campbell, and Audrey Chia

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This book is about three paradoxes faced by women in Singapore. At the national, economic level, there have been mixed messages. Women are called to be productive both at work and at home. There are policies that encourage women to work, because of the tight labour market. There are policies that encourage women to have more children because of the declining birth rate. At the societal level, we want modern career women who earn money for their families and contribute to the economy but we also want traditional wives and mothers who provide comfort to their families and stability to society. At the organisational level, women managers and executives are still under-represented, although their educational level has been rising. Women face psychological and corporate barriers. For instance, women managers are expected to demonstrate the qualities of decisiveness and assertiveness. These are traits typically associated with masculinity. At the same time, they are also expected to maintain their femininity (Deaux & Kite, 1993).


The First Paradox

Chapter 1 discusses the changing roles of women in Singapore. The first paradox refers to the call to women to be productive employees while still retaining their traditional roles in the family. The chapter traces women's increasing participation in Singapore's economy. Growing together with the nation, women now receive higher education and contribute more to the country�s economic development. However, it is difficult for women to fulfil both economic and traditional roles.

Chapter 2 discusses laws and policies related to women. A survey of the national laws enacted and policies passed in the last three decades reveals the general eagerness on the part of the Singapore Government to raise the legal status of women in society and to encourage more women to enter the labour force. Human resources are Singapore�s main asset for economic survival. The government has had to devise nationwide strategies to develop and utilise its population, regardless of gender.

However, policy-makers who have succeeded in encouraging economic growth are concerned that Singapore�s societal structure may be threatened by the displacement of women's traditional role at home. Problems such as higher divorce and delinquency rates, declining birth rate and an increasing number of singles have drawn attention. Hence there are also exist policies that, instead of encouraging women to work, hinder the free movement of women into the workforce. These policies can be seen as responses to the social problems caused by the changing roles of women in Singapore.


The Second Paradox

Chapter 3 discusses the conflict between work and family, which is the second paradox faced by many working women. With Singapore�s rising standard of living, a dual-career family has become more of a necessity than a choice. Moreover, the educational attainment of wives has led to their need to seek self-fulfilment through their careers.

However, the traditional roles of women as home-maker and child-minder have not disappeared with their pursuit of work outside the home. The need to enact both work and family roles has led to work-family conflicts both for women and their spouses.

Many Singaporean women face dual pressures of family and work. Not all can be "superwomen." As a result, many choose to remain single or to have a family without children. At the other extreme, many women with high educational attainment have to resign from their positions, or take less challenging jobs to try to meet their families� needs.

Chapter 4 explores various forms of flexi-work arrangements. Women�s work or families may suffer unless priorities are set to resolve the paradox created by work-family conflict. Adequate support systems can help to reduce the conflict. For instance, a nation with well-developed flexible work arrangements and child care facilities will give its working mothers more choices. Working mothers can opt for less pay and more time at home, or more time at work while paying someone else to complete domestic tasks.

One of the major difficulties for working women is child care. Chapter 5 discusses child care arrangements and needs in Singapore. If quality child care support is available, it may help to attract more women to enter and remain in the labour force.


The Third Paradox

The third paradox refers to the barriers women face as they try to move ahead in their careers. Chapter 6 presents the dilemmas faced by women managers. At the organisational level, despite the general rise in educational attainment by women, the percentage of women managers has not increased proportionately. As discussed in Chapter 7, obstacles in the form of social gender stereotypes and other psychological barriers (such as personality traits, locus of control, motivation, fear of success) partially explain the discrepancy.

However, as Chapter 8 indicates, greater barriers are posed by corporate structure and culture. In the absence of a supportive corporate culture, which can appreciate feminine strengths while concentrating on the work-related aspects of a woman manager, women cannot progress far up the corporate ladder.

Chapter 9 focuses on women who have chosen not to pursue traditional corporate careers but become entrepreneurs instead. Women entrepreneurs, whose numbers have been rising in Singapore, face another set of problems. The Asian business community has traditionally been a boys' club where few women would dare venture. Women who attempt to do so have the formidable task of building business networks and ties. They may face discrimination, distrust and lack of acceptance. The class-conscious Asian society used to consider women respectable if they stayed at home to look after their families. Those who had to venture outside the house as traders or sellers were considered lower-class. Although the societal perception of women has changed vastly over the centuries, today's women entrepreneurs may still receive less respect than their male counterparts.


The Three Paradoxes: Working Women in Singapore Singapore: Aware, 1999.

The Three Paradoxes is available at major bookstores in Singapore, including as Times, Borders, MPH and Select books at Tanglin Shopping Center. International orders may be placed at the folllowing address:

Block 5 Dover Crescent #01-22
Singapore 130005
Telephone: INT+65 779 7137 Facsimile INT+65 777 0318.

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