Just a few weeks ago on Feb 28, 2013, Ms Park Geun-hye made history by becoming South Korea's first female president.
She joined the league of several other women who occupied top political positions before – in India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, and Indonesia etc. – reinforcing the seachange in public mindsets that is sweeping across Asia.
In Singapore, women too have been making strides. There are now Cabinet Ministers, High Court judges and chairwomen of large listed companies.
Another development is that the female participation in the Singapore labour force has risen significantly over the years but it is still lower than that in many developed countries.
There were 2.12 million residents in the labour force in June 2012, comprising 1.18 million (56%) males and 0.94 million (44%) females.
Manpower Ministry statistics show that Singapore women are more likely to drop out of the labour force after marriage and childbirth. Only 52% of Singapore women aged 40 to 49 years work, compared with 76% in US and 79% in UK.
Our female participation rate in the workforce is even lower than that of tradition-steeped countries such as Japan (71%) and Korea (62%).
In a recent online survey by Accenture, 74% of Singaporean women said they turned down jobs because of concerns about work-life balance.
Just 50% of men have turned down employment offers for the same reason.
In fact, work-life balance tops the definition of career success for 56% of women globally, rating ahead of money (46%), autonomy (46%) and recognition (42%), according to the online survey.
So what can be done to encourage and help Singapore women return to work?
Almost all (98%) of the women surveyed by the Ministry of Manpower were interested to join the workforce with part-time jobs being preferred (77%) and only 13% opting for full-time work.
The Budget debate has thrown up suggestions on how to attract women to rejoin the workforce and retain those that are now employed.
More can be done to boost female employment numbers to alleviate the labour crunch that is constraining our economic vibrancy. These include:-
More funding for education of women, to encourage more adults to upgrade their skills, it would be good to introduce more specific incentives for women in the older age groups to upgrade their skills and knowledge.
This is important, as better education will allow women access to better-paying and higher-level jobs when they rejoin the workforce. Employers are also more willing to recruit women with appropriate skills so that they can contribute to their jobs readily.
The Singapore Government can also expand the range of courses and educational institutions to qualify for subsidies and grants so that women can have a wider choice to select options that best fit their own career aspirations.
Financial assistance, affordable and accessible childcare, and elderly care facilities - more assistance in such support services would help to relieve the burden of care-giving responsibilities. This would be very useful as many women are the primary caregivers at home.
Incentives should be in place for employers to recruit and train older women. The Singapore Government can initiate additional cash grants for employers under the Wage Credit Scheme (WCS) to employ and upgrade the skills of more women in this age group.
There should also be more incentives for training of older women so that they can have the appropriate skills and knowledge to handle the work and meet the demands of global business today.
Flexi-work incentives - incentives to promote flexible work arrangements can help more women to balance their careers with their family responsibilities.
Last but not least, promote greater awareness and appreciation to encourage women to be active participants in the workforce.
It is important to drum up awareness via public campaigns to change the mindset of women who still harbour doubts about taking up jobs. It is also crucial to change the attitudes of men (especially those that still perceive women to be the domestic caregivers all the time) – and persuade their wives or female relatives to build fulfilling careers outside the home.
Women today have a crucial role to play in the economy. And we should use our best resources to ensure their role is further enhanced as “women power”, and not just “manpower”, which is essential to drive the continued success of Singapore.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
Do you know more about this story? Contact us anonymously through this link.
Ms Tan Gek Khim, PBM, is the Senior Director at MDIS. She holds a MBA from the University of Manchester, UK. An accountant by training, she joined MDIS in 1993 as Head of Finance and Administration. Gek Khim also chairs the Women’s Executive Committee of the South East zone under People’s Association. In recognition of her community efforts, she was awarded the Pingkat Bakti Masyarakat (PBM) award in August 2009.