Minding The Gender Gap

Low Chin Loo, inaugural head of Asia Pacific for EDGE Certification and former president of the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore, believes female progress in the workplace is a societal issue where men’s involvement is critical. With the pandemic hurting women’s careers more than men’s, she wants organisations to step up and shift the needle towards gender parity.

Low Chin Loo, inaugural head of Asia Pacific for EDGE Certification, believes female progress in the workplace is a societal issue where men’s involvement is critical

Working mums have had to juggle Zoom calls while ensuring their kids were learning online, not watching Tik Tok. As Covid-19 escalated and countries went into lockdowns, there were more meals to whip up at home. Perhaps a grocery run for elderly parents. Some, who worked in shops or restaurants, may even have lost income or jobs.

The pandemic is penalising the careers of women, who often wear multiple hats, more than men. Women are also disproportionately represented in industries most battered by Covid-19, such as the retail trade. More worryingly, the pandemic could wipe out 25 years of progress in gender equality globally, warns a UN report.

All this is spurring Low Chin Loo, a long-time advocate of gender equity in Singapore, to flex her toned arms to prod companies and governments to tackle biases against women. “A majority of women are primary caregivers versus their spouses or brothers,” she says. For both childcare and eldercare, unpaid responsibilities have intensified while domestic workloads have escalated for women.

inancial and job insecurity, meantime, brings with it mental and even physical wellness challenges. And, if nothing is done to address any dips in female labour force participation, the savings gap between men and women will widen. On a macro level, economic growth would likely suffer, Low adds.

Even before the pandemic, Singapore had some way to go towards workplace equality for women. A recent [released Jan 2020] MOM and NUS study put Singapore’s unadjusted pay gap at 16%. Another telling metric, the labour force participation rate, was 61% for women as at end 2019, well below the 75% rate for men.

Low, who was president of the Financial Women’s Association (FWA) of Singapore from 2011 to 2015, says one reason for gender income inequality is that there are much fewer women in high-paying leadership jobs, such as C-suite and executive committee roles. In particular, the progress of women in boards in Singapore-listed companies remains glacial, she notes. Women made up just 11.8% of all boards at end-2019. Almost half of all boards remain all-male. Although the boardroom tends to be a boys’ club everywhere, Singapore stands out for lagging behind countries like the UK, Australia, Malaysia and India.

Another reason why women earn less is due to the “motherhood penalty”. Studies have shown that working mothers face disadvantages in pay, hiring and promotions compared to childless women and men. “The gender gap emerges when women are in their 30s and start families,” says Low, who spent over 20 years at DBS Bank and then BNP Paribas and has two grown up children. “Until we change mindsets on the role and expectations of women at home and at work, women will continue to fall behind in career development and retirement savings.”

What else can be done to improve inclusiveness? The FWA, which began as a networking and support platform in 2001, organises events with corporates to equip women with skills to advance in their jobs. It also helps companies facilitate the success of their female hires. Low also highlights the FWA’s mentoring programme, now in its tenth year. The coaching cuts across the financial services industry and because mentors and mentees are from different organisations, the sharing is often more honest, she notes.

FWA now has about 100 mentors, called FWA Champions, of whom half are males. “We firmly believe that female progress in the workplace is not a woman’s issue but a societal issue where the involvement of men is critical,” says Low. The aim is to create a pipeline of female leaders.

On the personal front, Low is taking her experience in promoting gender diversity to the next level. In January, she became the first head of Asia Pacific for EDGE Certification, a Swiss-based company that certifies gender progress. Since it started in 2009, it has helped over 200 organisations work towards gender parity. These include global names such as IKEA, Capgemini, L’Oréal, Accenture, SAP and Pfizer, as well as multilateral agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

EDGE assesses and measures key metrics such as gender balance at all levels within an organisation, pay equity, policies (such as flexible working and recruitment) to ensure equitable career flows for men and women and an inclusive culture. “EDGE is not very well known in Asia yet,” Low acknowledges. She hopes to change that and to encourage companies across the region to measure, track and report their progress on gender inclusiveness.

“What gets measured gets managed,” she points out. In addition to her new role and her continued work with the FWA, Low is an advisor to several tech start-ups. She is also a legislative assistant in parliament. Clearly, wearing several hats and juggling different demands is something this changemaker has long learnt to master.