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Is Singapore still a long way from accomplishing true gender equality?

True gender equality benefits men and women

Corinna Lim's assertion that "Singaporean fathers are not rising to the task of child rearing, and state support for equal parenting roles is not adequate" is an accurate description of the causes of Singapore's woeful birth-rates.

Singapore has seen an increasing number of women joining the workforce, but gender roles have been persistent, and continues to perpetuate. The acceptance of women into the workforce have not seen a reciprocity of the acceptance of men in equal parenting responsibilities, and the paternalistic power structure continues to dominate because of inadequate national policy to encourage a more equal society.

In the last 30 years, women have entered the workplace in droves. More girls graduate from our universities than boys. However, these changes are asymmetrical. Men have not moved into the domestic sphere at the same rate.

This asymmetry makes child rearing much less attractive for women. The woman who derives satisfaction from her work will not be keen to have any, or many, children if she has to bear the bulk of the childcare burden. In the meantime, her husband does not lose sleep about balancing work and family life.

Traditional gender roles not only deprive men of the opportunity to play an active role in their children's lives but also create an unbalanced environment where women are discouraged from having more children.

It is telling that you can, for the most part, switch the words around and the situation applies to men just as much as to women. While it may be true that Singaporean men have yet to embrace their parenting responsibility as readily as women do (or are expected to do), for some of us the same factors weigh heavily in our decision to start our own families.

This is especially true in my circle of friends and co-workers. I have decided to give up a job offer that would pay more, but would not allow me to spend the time I want to spend with my newborn child who is due in August. A friend packs his shifts tightly so he can accumulate stretches of off-time in order for him to fly back to his wife and two kids in Thailand. Another co-worker sacrifices every single day of paid leave without complaint in order to spend time with, and take care of, his two-year-old son. I appreciate the expanded maternity leave benefits that my wife gets, but this just reinforces the gender roles that I want done away with conclusively.

The sacrifices for men are just as real as those demanded from women. Even taking into account asymmetrical gender roles that seem ingrained in our society, parenting is just as stressful, and as physically and psychologically draining, for men as it is for women. If anything, the persistence of this asymmetry, and the enforcement of inherent gender roles, make men less likely to admit their difficulties, and result in their stubborn refusal to accept their parental responsibilities, or worse, not want to have children at all.

I'm confident that at least some of us men want changes to help us play the role of fathers more fruitfully, and our efforts to do so can be constructively assisted with fair national policies. I have the flexibility of combining annual leave with off-days so I can spend more time with my family, but for fathers working the typical 9am-to-6pm, 5-days-a-week jobs, that flexibility is out of the question. Don't even get me started on jobs that require longer hours.

Without adequate employment practices and policies to help fathers get there, our attempts to do so on our own is easily stymied, and gets us nothing but frustration in return for our efforts. It's not unlike trying to swim against the current with one hand tied behind your back. And some employers would also blindfold you while you're at it.

So Corinna is absolutely correct when she said Singapore is still a long way from accomplishing true gender equality; true gender equality is more than just adequate rights and protection for women, it is also adequate rights and protection for both men and women. Only when this balance is achieved will we be able to say we have an equal society where both men and women are expected to contribute to society and their families in every way they can, and not just restricted to long obsolete pigeonholes of neatly packaged responsibilities dictated by gender.

One more thing: I may be nit-picking, but I take issue with the statement that husbands do not "lose sleep about balancing work and family life". As a father-to-be, I lose a lot more sleep than my wife does, and foresee losing even more in the future; and my kid isn't even born yet!

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This article by Callan Tham first appeared on the Trapper's Swamp blog

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