Staff Writer
PR & Influence
3 Steps to Creating a Gender Equal Workplace

There are plenty of women (and even more men) who don’t necessarily identify as feminists because they see it as a “loaded term,” says Corinna Lim, Director of AWARE, Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group. But when you put the thorny issue of language aside, most people don’t have a problem with the basic principles of feminism. “There are very few people who don’t believe in gender equality,” she says. The problem arises when people conflate feminism with special treatment, or they believe that equality has already been achieved.

A #HerOgilvy panel, chaired by Ogilvy Singapore’s Rika Sharma, explored how attitudes towards women and the workplace are slowly but surely changing in Asia, thanks in no small part to the dynamic women leading the way. Comprising female leaders from the worlds of media, business and finance, the panel discuss the change that still needs to take place on a societal scale, and where to start.

 1) We need equality in communications

“Ads impact our subconscious,” says Lim. “When you talk about unconscious bias, advertisers are responsible for creating that!” So much of advertising presents women as little more than props, she says, it’s unsurprising that a vast number of women internalise the idea that they have less to offer than men.

So, how can advertisers progress their goal of achieving gender equality? There are two key objectives, says Corinna. First of all, you need public commitment from the very top, whether in the form of a pledge to have parity in leadership by a certain point, or a vow to end objectification in campaigns, like Badger & Winters did.

And then you need to raise awareness of that goal, both internally and externally. “Women have been reluctant to call out sexism because it’s seen as career suicide,” she says. “Make it OK to call it out. Run internal campaigns.”

 2) There’s a difference between “female boss” and “bossy”

In the specific context of Singapore, men spend two years of national service being told that they are tough, strong, and made to be leaders. But across Asia, there are men who struggle with the idea that a woman can be in charge.

“93 per cent of decision makers in venture capital are male,” says Pocket Sun, Founder of SoGal Ventures, the world’s first female-led millennial VC firm. She has lost count of the number of times in her job that she has been mistaken for an intern or a ‘booth girl’. A common occurrence, she says, is for clients or investors in a meeting to only shake the hands of the men in a meeting, assuming the women weren’t senior. Her advice? Stick out your hand and make them shake it.

The problem with being assertive, of course, is that it often invites accusations of being “aggressive” and “unprofessional” from men. Ayesha Khanna, CEO of ADDO and Founder of 21C Girls, recalls how she tried to modify her own behaviour to become more “ladylike” when dealing with her male staff in the world of finance — to the detriment of her work. “I was losing my confidence and the company was veering in the wrong direction, because every time I said something, I’d be very accommodating and try to listen to everyone, and strategy was jittery as a result,” she says. “It’s not that I was unladylike… it’s that they were wrong.”

Most people can’t even pinpoint why exactly they think a woman’s behaviour is any different from a man’s, says Pocket, and that’s the problem: “It’s important we realise what’s been planted in our heads, and what we can get rid of, things that don’t apply to the modern world any more.”

3) Breaking down gender roles helps everyone

Technological disruption means that the workplace is changing at a faster pace than ever before, and this can be a great catalyst for progress. “Change happens when companies, industries and whole countries are in crisis,” says Ayesha. “We have all these bad habits, like gender bias; so when you have new work practices that are necessary due to disruption, that’s an opportunity to start afresh.”

Thinking back to the senior women he’s seen in the newsroom over the years, writer and editor Alan John recalls journalists who were primarily single, divorced and childless. This image of a successful woman might have carried a sliver of truth in the past, but does it still apply? He notes that as more and more examples arose of women being able to get the job done with flexible hours, it became more of a norm — and began to appeal to men, too. “If it worked for one person, it can work for everyone,” he says.

For Pocket, feminism means equal opportunity for both sexes. “Men and women should both have the freedom to choose what they want to do,” she says, “whether that is working, or staying at home.” Placing pressure on men to fulfill traditionally “masculine” roles of breadwinner is outdated and harmful, as is the idea that a woman can only pursue her own goals if she doesn’t have a family.

“No man ever says he wants to have it all,” Pocket points out — presumably because men don’t face the weight of expectation that women do when it comes to raising children. But why shouldn’t men get to participate equally in parenting? And why shouldn’t women get to have a life outside of the nursery?

Every individual, household and career trajectory is unique, so why are we forcing square pegs into round holes? People are choosing to have babies at different times in their lives now, and an increasingly flexible work environment can only be conducive to both men and women doing their best work.

As Chong Ee Rong, Group Managing Director of Ogilvy Singapore puts it, it is possible to “have it all” — just maybe not all at the same time.

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