Discrimination against women in the workplace might seem like old news; most men believe it doesn’t exist anymore and women for the most part, take it in their stride, sharing their frustrations with sympathetic girlfriends over coffee, but never really addressing the issue head on. And who can blame them? In Singapore and around most of the world, laws are in place to protect women against workplace discrimination, but they are often not enforced, leaving women vulnerable to even further discrimination if they decide to speak up.
Worse yet are the people who say that gender equality has been achieved because male bosses are no longer staring down the blouses of their female secretaries or pinching the butts of their female colleagues as they bend over. And frankly, I’m sick of it. While we are all ‘oh so grateful’ that we’re not being sexually harassed in the office anymore, we have to understand that discrimination comes in many forms and while the overt acts of discrimination may have been almost eliminated, the undercurrents of it are still in place, influencing the way in which professional women are viewed and treated.
I’ll say it plainly; workplace discrimination against women still exists and I know because I’ve experienced it.
It starts at the interview process (or maybe even earlier in some cases), with this famous interview question: “I see that you are married,….so, any plans to have children?”. My initial reaction is one of complete shame, I’m sure I blush as I think : Great, now I have to talk to this total stranger about my sex life. No, actually I don’t have to , I could decline giving a response by saying it’s a personal matter. But if I do that, I could probably kiss the job goodbye, and basically every other one I interview for, because that question ALWAYS come up.
It’s a dilemma; if I say yes, I probably won’t get the job. Companies don’t want to hire women who will get pregnant in three months and then take another three months of maternity leave. If I say no, well, it’s a lie because I do hope to have children , and sometime soon. I usually choose a semi-lie, saying I plan to but not in the near future. I even had one interviewer ask if my in-laws would insist that I have children soon, to which I wanted to reply; “Mind your own f***ing business!!!!”, but instead just politely replied that the decision would be made by my husband and myself without influence from outside parties. I still wonder how I managed to restrain myself from leaping across the table and smacking him across the face, shouting “there’s your answer!!”.
You may think my reaction is severe, after all, it’s just a question about my future plans and the interviewer is required to have the company’s best interests in mind. But when strangers cross personal boundaries, it’s a natural instinct to become defensive and there is nothing more personal to a woman than motherhood.
A year ago, I suffered a painful miscarriage that left me and my husband devastated. In an interview that I attended shortly thereafter, the interviewer , naturally, asked about my plans to get pregnant and I almost burst into tears. At which point do recruiters stop looking out for professional gain and start respecting the privacy of their candidates? I feel for the women who are struggling to get pregnant or who have been deemed medically unable to do so – are they expected to share that information when interviewers quiz them about their plans for children? “Oh don’t worry about that, my gynaecologist has told me that I have a slim chance of ever having children, so with some luck, I’ll be here FOREVER!”. Discrimination is at its worst when it affects someone on a deep psychological level and a women’s choice and ability to have children is no one’s concern but hers.
Singapore has developed the Tripartite Alliance For Fair Employment Practices , an impressive undertaking in the usual Singapore style – a user friendly website, with all races, genders and ages represented in a fun and engaging picture, well-written guidelines on fair employment practices and of course, the e-learning tools that we all cannot do without. Fluff, it’s all fluff. It’s no point spending millions of dollars developing guidelines if they aren’t there to truly protect the vulnerable. Do these people know what goes on during job interviews? And if they do, why aren’t they doing something about it?
Ironically, it’s within this same website that we see some of the greatest discrimination. Married female employees covered under the Employment Act are entitled to a total of 12 weeks of maternity leave. Single female employees and female employees who are citizens of Singapore but have chosen to give their child a different citizenship are entitled to only 8 weeks. Any additional maternity leave for this ‘outcast’ group is at the discretion of the employer. To make matters worse, if an employer does decide to treat these mothers equally by giving them the maternity leave they should be receiving anyway, they will not be reimbursed by the government. Three cheers for fair employment practices in Singapore! One wonders why women in Singapore don’t speak up against discrimination.
Another issue is whether a woman should be required to disclose her pregnancy when she applies for a job. Leslie Cannold, in her article entitled ‘ You’re pregnant, do you tell your boss?’ talks about the ethical dilemma that women face when they discover they are pregnant while applying for a job. I agree with Leslie that women should not be legally or ethically required to divulge this information. The practical reason being that the outcome of an early pregnancy is unknown. It hardly seems fair that a woman should be denied a job because she is pregnant, only to end up losing the pregnancy as well. I know it sounds harsh, but it’s the reality and women have to start playing it smart. Unfortunately in Singapore, women are not given that choice. Once a candidate has been offered a job, medical examinations are mandatory and almost always include X-Rays. While I cannot speak for all women, I feel that most pregnant women would rather lose that job opportunity that expose their unborn child to X-ray radiation, which is believed to be dangerous. So essentially, we have no choice but to tell all.
But let’s dig deeper. Why should a pregnant woman be denied a job anyway? Majority of women work throughout their pregnancies, carrying out their normal duties. They are entitled to the same medical leave as anyone else during the early stages and are only missing from the office for an average of 12 weeks of maternity leave. What’s three months of leave compared to hiring a qualified, experienced person with the ability to perform the job well? Companies don’t cease to function because one employee is gone for three months. I honestly don’t understand it. Are employers just uncomfortable with the idea of a pregnant woman walking around the office, attending meetings and dealing with clients? Or do they fear that the woman’s focus will shift from her work to her family after she has child? And if the latter is the case, then why don’t they have the same concerns for men who have just become fathers?
Leslie says ‘the truth is that most sexually active women aged 13 to 50 are at risk of being pregnant. If these facts of female fertility, as against the male sort, are seen as legitimate grounds for employer discrimination then equal opportunity for women will remain a pipe dream: an ideal to which we pay lip service but are unwilling to do the hard work to achieve’. I agree. The fact is that women can and do get pregnant and it’s not something we should be punished for. The government has desperately been trying to get Singaporean women (but only the married ones please, cause you see, single women don’t deserve to have children) to have more babies. They’ve tried silly gimmicks and cheap tactics to achieve higher fertility rates. At the same time, employers discriminate against women who want to have children. There’s something very wrong with this picture. Get your act together guys, we’re confused and honestly quite sick of this bulls**t.
It doesn’t end there. I’m married to an expatriate working in Singapore, so I’m often subjected to yet another discriminatory interview question. Interviewers always want to know if there is a chance that my husband will be posted overseas and if so, would I be leaving my job to go with him. I don’t even know where to begin with this question, because it’s just flawed on some many levels.
Firstly, if I had married a Singaporean , this question would probably never come up, because for some inexplicable reason, interviewers never think that Singaporean men can be posted overseas taking their wives with them. So essentially, I ‘m deemed as less dependable than a woman who has married a ‘local’.
Secondly, the assumption is that it’s my husband who will be posted overseas and not me; no one has ever asked; “If we want to post YOU overseas, would your husband consider leaving his job to go with you?” I have worked overseas, with my husband (then boyfriend) working in Singapore, where he was pursuing a successful career too. When one interviewer saw that I had left a job in Singapore to take one in the Middle East, she suspiciously looked at me and asked “Are you sure you left Singapore to pursue a better career opportunity or did you just follow your husband because he was posted there?” I couldn’t decide if I was amused or just completely pissed off by that question. God forbid a woman should feel secure enough in her relationship to pursue her career far away from her partner. And if by some chance she does do that, let’s look at her suspiciously and question her honesty.
Third, and probably the most annoying of all is that men rarely get asked this question. Most often men are asked if their wives would follow them if they are posted overseas and not if they would follow their wives. During one interview, I was asked if my husband would , and I quote “give me permission” to work late. What’s next? Consent forms that need to be signed by our husbands, allowing us to stay out past seven?
After all these years and all the efforts that women have made toward achieving equality in the workplace, it is truly disappointing to see that these stereotypes and prejudices still exist. Sadly, it’s not only male interviewers who are guilty of asking these questions , but female ones too. If we women don’t support each other, we’ll never advance our cause for equality in the workplace. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that we haven’t progressed. I truly admire all the women who have championed equality out in the open as well as those who do it more silently, everyday in their workplaces. Organizations like AWARE and their countless volunteers deserve praise for their achievements. I’m only saying that we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we have achieved equality, because unfortunately, we haven’t.
As for me , I hope that I’ll have the courage one day to go for a job interview and stand up for my rights. I’ve already planned my responses for that day:
Interviewer : So , I see you are married. Any plans to have children?
Me : (Tries to main calm and class, with a smile) Not in the near future, maybe someday. I’d like to concentrate on my career for now
Interviewer : (Looks at me suspiciously) Are you sure? Why not? You’ve already been married for a year and a half.
Me : (Again with patient smile) Yes, I’m sure. My husband and I would like to build a good career foundation first, before we think about having children
Interviewer : (Looks even more suspicious )What about your in-laws? Will they force you to have kids?
Me : (with exaggerated sarcasm) Oh don’t worry, if you offer me the job, I’ll ensure that I don’t get pregnant. I can provide you with my ovulation charts and you can lock me up far away from my husband on my fertile days. Or maybe you’d like a sample of my cervical mucus every morning to test for fertility. Or do you have some kind of chastity belt system here, I’d be happy to wear one if it means I can have be a part of this worthless , discriminatory organization, you busybody!!
And, what about YOU? Are YOU married? Are YOU planning to have children? Any other completely job-unrelated personal information you’d like to share with me? What? Did I hear you say you don’t have children yet? Having some performance issues down there are we?
Interviewer : (Looks scared, shocked and uncomfortable) Errrrmmm…I think this interview is over.
Me : YOU BET IT IS A-HOLE! (Walks out, satisfied).
Lupiloo alternates between career woman and stay at home wife; she wouldn’t call herself a feminist because she doesn’t know what that means , but she believes in equality and in the amazing strength and courage of the many women she has encountered- she also wants to be a unicorn.