HR & EDUCATION | Contributed Content, Singapore
Helen Ng

Working moms and the work-life balance myth


Powerful women leaders in C-suites are hard to come by. According to the report “Gender Diversity on Boards: A Business Imperative”, of the 677 Singapore Exchange (SGX)-listed companies studied, only 7.9 percent of board directors were women.

There are no local statistics on the proportion of women Chief Executive Officers (CEO) who are also mothers but of the 23 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, more than 50% are mothers.* This shows that it is possible for women who are also mothers to excel at work, but their success is more likely the result of work-life effectiveness rather than work-life balance.

I believe that work-life balance is a myth and women just cannot have it all. A career woman simply cannot devote equal time to work and family. This has led Catalyst, a research firm focused on women in business, to coin the phrase work-life effectiveness, which suggests a situation where work fits in with other aspects of one's life such as motherhood.

Research has shown that investment in work-life effectiveness benefits not just the individual but also the company in terms of enhanced productivity and greater shareholder value.

In order to achieve work-life effectiveness, you need a supportive network at home and at work, to whom you can “outsource” work-life overflows. For example, you could rope in your parents to help with sending your children to school so it frees you up to concentrate on your career, knowing that your children are in safe hands.

At work, you could use video conferencing technology to stay in touch with your colleagues and superiors while you attend to an urgent family matter. Of course, your company must also support off-site work under special circumstances. Large companies that value work-life effectiveness could consider setting up workplace childcare centres or locating their offices within buildings with such facilities.

The myth of work-life balance requires working mothers to take time out of work to care for their young children and reduce their hours when they return, which has a detrimental effect on their careers. If you choose to take time out, at least try to stay relevant to the job market and have realistic expectations when you rejoin the working world.

It is unrealistic to expect a position to remain open or to obtain the same level of pay and title after being out of the corporate world. The economy will not wait for you.

Even as more companies look to foster work-life balance by offering working mothers the option of flexi-work, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea as it takes great effort and self-discipline to remain productive. Besides, employers have to be open to the concept of flexi-work, and measuring performance remotely is a challenge.

Why not shift our mindset from one that rigidly splits 50/50 along the lines of family and work, to one that strives for greater work-life effectiveness and efficiency? At home, this means being there for your children when it matters the most (e.g., accompanying them on their first day of school) if you cannot be with them all the time.

The last but most important contributing factor for work-life effectiveness is spousal support. I believe most men will support their wives, but often social structures and policies do not allow them to do so.

In Singapore, working fathers, including those who are self-employed, are entitled to one week of government-paid paternity leave for all births. It is a baby step, but not enough. Until men are also extended the same parenthood benefits like in the Scandinavian countries, women will always be the ones having to make the difficult choice between work and family.

In Sweden, for example, there is no gender distinction for entitlement to paid leave per child and other parenthood benefits. The mother and the father are together entitled to up to 16 months' paid leave per child. As a result female and maternal employment rates are among the highest in the European Union, and child poverty is the lowest.** The burden and benefits are shared equally – and not shouldered by the mother alone.

When we strive for work-life effectiveness as working mothers, we are also providing effective role modelling to our children. We are showing our daughters that a woman does not have to sacrifice her career for her family. By getting our sons to help with domestic chores, we are laying the foundation for them to support their spouses in future. We are teaching our children how to survive in an ever-evolving world that rewards those who work smart and play hard.


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.

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Helen Ng

Helen Ng

Coming from a background in property development, Helen Ng became Singapore's first and only female self-storage hub Chief Executive Officer when she took over the Lock+Store business from real estate developer Mapletree in November 2010. In November 2013, Helen received the Singapore Women's Weekly Great Women of Our Time award in the “Finance and Commerce” category. In April 2014, Helen was appointed Deputy Chair of the inaugural Self-Storage Association Asia (SSAA) – the first Singaporean to be appointed to a key Board position.

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