How the march towards workplace equitability can extend beyond the boardroom
A quick look into any company’s diversity and inclusion efforts and you will spot a common metric: the number of women in managerial positions or on the board.
Over the years, boardroom or c-suites representations have become the poster child to showcase that women can be given equal opportunities to excel as men. It’s easy to see why - having women on the board has proven effective to encourage other women employees to pursue their careers and instigate cultural change. At the same time, it is one of the more easily measured indicators to showcase a company’s progress and commitment to diversity.
But as we celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day and #EmbraceEquity, we ask ourselves: is having a female leader enough to ensure an equitable workforce that truly empowers women?
To answer this question, we must first understand the difference between equality and equity.
Where equality means giving everyone the same resources or opportunities, equity recognises the differing needs and circumstances of each individual and allocate the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.
This means that providing equal opportunities is not enough, companies also need to create a workplace that will enable every employee, including women, to thrive.
Here are five things employers should think about to help women advance their careers and create an equitable workforce:
Bridge the gender wealth gap
Our research has shown that the average woman in Singapore is expected to reach retirement with just 79% of the wealth accumulated by men. The primary drivers contributing to this include disparity in pay and delayed career trajectories. Gaps in financial literacy and family caregiving responsibilities outside the workplace also influence women’s participation in paid employment.
It is important, therefore, that employers increase pay transparency by assessing HR programmes and processes, understanding which ones are contributing to the gap in inequities and making improvements that could address this gap. Employers can also organise financial resilience workshops to increase financial literacy and eliminate unintended career progression barriers to improve career enablement.
Rethink family building support
The recent doubling of paid paternity leave in Singapore was a much-needed move to reduce the financial, emotional, and social insecurities that many working parents face. Yet the nature of maternity and paternity leaves continues to reinforce the common presumption that women should take responsibility for childcare and the stigma against fathers who want to assume the role of the primary caregiver.
To take it one step forward, why not redefine childbirth (or adoption) leaves by primary and secondary caregiver instead of by gender? Countries like New Zealand and Australia are already doing this, and we believe this approach could alleviate the persistent inequalities in caregiving and give women greater flexibility to pursue their career goals. It could also give a boost to the local fertility rate, which has dropped to an all-time low of 1.05 in 2022, with many couples delaying marriage and parenthood due the increasing pressure to raise young children.
Then there’s the need to provide more help for aspiring mothers. More than 85% of APAC-based companies currently exclude fertility treatment from their health benefits schemes, compared to 76% in the rest of the world. Employers need to be more forward thinking and supportive in providing access to these services, giving working women greater control over their lives and relieve them of the financial burden that comes with fertility treatments. This is especially important as more women are choosing to have children at an older age.
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Enable flexible work
Flexible work is often a top consideration for women looking for a new job or staying at their current roles, especially for mothers with young children or dependent care responsibilities. Yet only less than one-third of APAC companies are currently reviewing flexible work and caregiving arrangements. A gender-balanced flexible work policy that gives both men and women employees equal opportunity to care for their families could alleviate the disproportionate burden of caregiving placed on women and normalise men’s roles as caregivers. This would then give women employees more time and flexibility to excel in the workplace.
Besides, flexible working isn’t just about working from home versus working from the office. For roles where remote working is not a viable option, employers can also consider flexible locations, such as allowing employees to work in a company outlet or branch closer to home. Some countries are also piloting a four-day work week, which has proven to result in more productive employees and more efficient businesses.
Empower women’s choices in health
Medical conditions like endometriosis, breast cancer and cervical cancer are all unique to women. While cardiovascular disease, often thought of as a condition for men, is in fact the leading cause of death for women globally. Heart attacks in women, accounting for one-third of all female deaths, have worse outcomes and higher mortality rates than men.
According to WTW Global Medical Trends survey last year, cancer and cardiovascular disease are the top two conditions in Asia by costs. Gender-specific screening packages are therefore not just a good to have, but a necessity to enable women to make informed decisions about their health. Early detection and treatments like mammograms and pap smear tests will not only save lives, but significantly reduce the potential financial impact on female employees and their employers in the long run.
Besides reproductive health risks, working women aged 45 to 55 face a common issue not often understood: menopause. Compared to 63% globally, only 48% of companies in the region are covering medical treatments for menopause, a common health issue that causes brain fog, forgetfulness, and even mental health conditions like stress and anxiety, all of which affect workplace performance. Employers thus need to optimise their health benefit schemes to support this unique health risk to empower more mature working women.
Prioritise mental wellbeing
Mental wellbeing has become a mounting concern in the workplace, and women are twice as likely as men to experience mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Employers therefore need to consider more holistic lifestyle interventions to improve the wellbeing of their female workforce. Access to mental wellbeing support such as employee assistance and sleep management programmes are some of the possible solutions companies can provide. Managerial support is also key to help employees strike a better work-life balance.
The road towards gender equity will not be easy, and the needs of women are so unique that they cannot be resolved by simply appointing more female leaders across the management and the boardroom.
Instead, companies need to rethink and reshape their workplace cultures in all aspects, and invest in more inclusive, holistic healthcare and wellbeing benefits.
Only in this way can we truly address the challenges women face, enable them to stay in the workforce throughout different life stages, empowering them with the opportunities they need to embrace equity and thrive in their careers.