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Keynote Address at The International Women's Day 2008 Power Lunch Women: Engines of Growth by Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, Minister of State for Finance and Transport, on Saturday, 8 March 2008, 12.30pm, Regent Hotel

10 Mar 2008

Ms Junie Foo
Chairperson, International Women's Day 2008 Committee

Mrs Wee Wan Joo
President, Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO)

My Parliamentary Colleagues

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

It is always a pleasure to celebrate International Women's Day with fellow women and the men who rally around us, in support of all that we are doing.

2. I especially like the theme of this year's event: Women: Engines of Growth. I googled to see what is meant and understood by the word "engine". Bear with me as I share with you what I have learnt.

3. Wikipedia refers to an engine as a "mechanical device that produces some form of output from a given input". Of course, we all know there is a whole range of engines. A "prime mover" is an engine that produces kinetic energy output from a fuel source, while a car engine is marveled as one of the most amazing machines used on a daily basis (well, ERP aside). And then we have heard of how aircraft are propelled by jet engines, including the mighty Airbus 380.

4. So what sort of engines are we women in Singapore? Are we adequately equipped to be engines of growth? What inputs are we receiving and have they been enhanced over the years? Are we given opportunities to perform as worthy engines?

Education Opportunities for Women

5. Allow me to share with you my assessment on both fronts. I am sure you will agree with me that women in Singapore have progressed significantly over the years in many areas. In education, literacy rates for resident women aged 15 years and above hit 93% in 2006, up from 89% in 2000.

6. The intake levels of females at our tertiary educational institutions (polytechnics and universities) have also increased by 45% from 1996 to 2006. Women are now well-represented in traditionally male-dominated courses. Note this - in universities, women made up 64% of students in both the natural, physical & mathematical science courses and the accountancy courses; while in polytechnics, women made up 79% of students in the health sciences courses; 63% in the legal studies courses and 59% in the architecture & building courses.

7. I should actually stop here lest the men complain about being crowded out by women. Nonetheless, this shows that we Singaporean women are able to pursue subjects of our choice and interest rather than conforming to gender stereotypes. Hence, in a nutshell, there are very few being denied the opportunity to receive a proper education.

Opportunities to Contribute and Perform

8. Let's now assess the opportunities currently available to women to contribute on several fronts from the more obvious arena of employment in the economy to business leadership to the less obvious, but equally important, role of political representation. Overlaying all these is the role of women as daughters, wives, mothers and grandmothers in some cases.

(i) Opportunities in Employment

9. It is not surprising that as more women are better educated, the employment rate for women in Singapore has been continually rising over the past 16 years. In 1991, 51% of females aged 25 to 64 were in employment. This rose to 64% as at June 2007. Although the female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) of 54% still lagged that of the males at 77%, the gap has narrowed over the decade, due to the improving educational profile.

10. More women are climbing up the corporate ladder, in both the public and private sectors. As at June 2007, women made up 42% of Managers & Senior Officials, Professionals and Technicians, up from 36% ten years ago.

11. The gender income gap has also narrowed over the years. In 2006, the median monthly income for full-time employed females was 86% that of males. This is an improvement from the 83% a decade ago.

12. However, I should add that the gender wage gap reflects differences in experience, skills, qualifications and the tendency for females to disrupt their participation in the workforce for childcare and household responsibilities. This reduces their average years of service and work experience and results in lower average pay than the males. Nonetheless, I am encouraged that females within the age group of 25 to 29 actually earned higher median gross wage than males in three major occupational groups, namely, managers (about 11% more), professionals (7% more), and sales and service workers (31% more) in June 2006.

(ii) Women in Business

13. While males still dominate the business scene, female entrepreneurs have been slowly but surely making their mark. A good example would be Ms Annie Gan, Managing Director of Jian Huang Construction, who is a successful woman entrepreneur in the very male-dominated construction industry. In October 2007, Annie was one of the two women who were awarded the Top Entrepreneur Award at the Entrepreneur of the Year 2007 a Rotary-ASME Award ceremony. The other was Ms Yvette Chiang, Founder and Director of Rustic Nirvana. Yvette created an original `Singapore Spa' experience by self-developing techniques using hand tools and a mix of Asian herbs and ingredients. These two female entrepreneurs were recognised for excellence in their businesses while significantly contributing to the economy and society.

14. At the same time, the number of women-only professional and business networks is growing. Of the 53 member-organisations of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO), 16 cater to business and professional women. As I understand, membership has been growing healthily. For example, membership of the Financial Women's Association of Singapore has almost doubled since 2005 to 400 members, consistent with the growth in the financial industry.

(iii) Women in Decision-Making Positions

15. You may ask, but are women increasingly involved in decision-making at the very top, or are simply foot-soldiers? Well, there are many successful women in senior decision-making positions in the private sector. For example, the current Group Chief Executive Officer of SingTel, one of Asia's largest telecommunications companies, Ms Chua Sock Koong, is a woman. Other successful woman high fliers who play an active role in the development of their companies include Miss Olivia Lum, Founder and CEO of Hyflux, Ms Chong Siak Ching, President and CEO of Ascendas and Ms Jeanette Wong, Chief Financial Officer of DBS Bank. The list goes on.

16. Singapore women business leaders will have an excellent opportunity to raise their international profile when Singapore hosts the APEC Women Leaders' Network Meeting in 2009. It will be a good platform to showcase their business or trade opportunities and form new social and business networks.

17. That's not all. Within the Civil Service, as at end 2007, women constituted 56% of the Civil Service and 57% of them were in the Division 1 and Superscale categories. In the Superscale category which comprises leadership roles, 40% were female officers. Currently, 4 of the 18 Permanent Secretaries are females. There were also 8 female Deputy Secretaries out of a total of 29.

18. The proportion of female officers has increased across all job levels in the Civil Service between 2000 and 2007. The most significant increase was at the Superscale Category, which saw an increase of around 12 percentage points, to 40%.

(iv) Women in Politics

19. I am happy to report that female representation in Parliament has been increasing. From 10 elected female Members of Parliament (MPs) in 2001, 17 were returned in May 2006. This represented a whopping 70% jump in political participation and accounted for a commendable 20% share of the total.

20. Based on data compiled by the Inter-Parli amentary Union (IPU), as at 31 December 2007, Singapore is ranked 36 out of 188 countries in terms of the percentage of women in the Lower or single House. We are above the world average and ahead of developed nations such as Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, the Republic of Korea and Japan.

21. Our female MPs have been persuasive and impressive during parliamentary sessions, including the recently concluded Budget debate. We have not confined ourselves to the traditional women's issues but tackle a wide range of matters from inflation to education and healthcare policies, to safety of workers, to helping low-wage workers secure fair terms and conditions of employment, and providing for old age.

22. Women have a choice in deciding if they want to enter politics. Although more women are increasingly holding their own in the economic sphere, many somehow still shy away from politics due to the desire for privacy. While we have made some progress, there is still more that we can learn from other countries on how to motivate greater numbers of women to take on a political role. Such a change may take time, but we are committed to this long-term effort. I am optimistic that as our country develops, more women will take on this responsibility as well.

Juggling the Multiple Roles - Work-life Balance

23. Even as we champion equal opportunity for women to be educated and to contribute, we must also be mindful of the needs and concerns of working women.

24. As a working mother with 3 children, I can tell you from first hand experience that juggling is the story of many of our lives, not that it is necessarily a bad thing nor one that we women are not equipped for. Juggling makes us a lot better at establishing priorities and both time and task management. And having had the opportunity to take some time off after my second child was born, I can honestly tell you that not all of us are good as full-time mothers.

25. Even as I take my hat off to so-called housewives who are really doing the most demanding of all jobs, I also want to say to all you working mothers out there, don't feel guilty that you should have been at home full time. Yes, there will be moments when you discover your kid hasn't handed in homework for a whole week, if not term, as mine did. No doubt juggling will continue to be a feature, I would boldly conclude from all my observations that mothers are actually better at juggling than fathers.

26. Nonetheless, the challenges can at times be a little daunting. To address the needs and concerns of working women, the Government has introduced a number of measures. For example, in 2004, maternity leave was extended from 8 to 12 weeks. Childcare leave was also introduced. The government has taken the lead by accommodating the 5-day work week where possible.

27. Other schemes were also initiated to promote work-life harmony and flexible work arrangements. These initiatives will help more women with families remain in employment, and further their careers whilst fulfilling their familial roles.

28. For example, the Ministry of Manpower actively promotes Work-Life Harmony through a number of different programmes. There is the Work-Life Works (WoW!) initiative which helps companies defray the costs of investing in family-friendly work arrangements. It began in 2004 with an initial $10 million in funding and received an additional $10 million top-up in 2007.

29. A Tripartite Committee on Work-Life Strategy comprising more than 10 member organizations from the Government, unions, employer, employee and business associations representatives, was set up in 2000 to engage employers, unions and the HR industry in promoting flexible work arrangements. Over time, these efforts will make it easier for women to remain in the workforce whilst balancing family commitments.

30. Ultimately, it's mindset changes we are after. Hence, in 2006, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices was set up to shift mindsets among employers, employees and the general public towards fair and responsible employment practices for all workers.

31. The Alliance issued the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices that identified fair and progressive HR practices in areas such as job applications, interviews, progression, and grievance handling. The Guidelines help employers recruit based on objective criteria and adopt progressive in-employment processes which give employees opportunities for growth and development based on merit.

32. I am happy to note that as of December 2007, more than 600 companies have signed the Employers' Pledge of Fair Employment Practices.


33. So what sort of engines of growth are we women in Singapore? I believe some of us are superb aircraft jet engines, excelling in our area of work and providing good leadership. Others are prime movers, establishing new businesses and providing pioneering guidance to fellow men and women. Many of us are the remarkable car engines, very dependable, and fulfill very important roles on a daily, regular basis. And we all move ahead in harmony as we realize our individual and group potential while helping to establish strong families.

34. But engines make noise as they whirr into action, which can be a concern if it's too loud or too much. So let's be environmentally sensitive, make beautiful noises as we charge along on the economic, social and political fronts.

35. Thank you and happy International Women's Day.