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Speech By Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, Minister In Prime Minister's Office And Second Minister for Finance And Transport, At The Federation Of Business And Professional Women Asia Pacific Regional Conference 2010

16 Oct 2010

Ms. Liz Benham
President of Federation of Business and Professional Women International

Mdm Ng Hong
President of Federation Business and Professional Women (Singapore)

Ladies and Gentlemen


         Good morning. I am very happy to be able to join you for the Federation of Business and Professional Women's Asia Pacific Regional Conference 2010. The Federation's goal of promoting the interests of business and professional women, as well as to develop the professional and leadership potential of women at all levels, is a noble one.

2         Although many countries today recognise that women have important roles to play in shaping their societies, women still face different challenges from men in the business and professional realms. It is therefore important that women band together to help one another overcome hurdles, increase awareness about what needs to be done to empower women in their respective fields, and bring about change that will lead to greater participation by women in the workforce, especially in the higher rungs of the corporate and political ladder.

Empowering Women

3         Women are still under-represented among leaders. For example, only 15 of the Fortune 500 CEOs, or 3 per cent of them, are female1. Yet, in a 2008 survey conducted by the US-based Pew Research Centre2, the American public felt that women possessed several leadership traits more significantly than men. These include honesty, intelligence, compassion, being outgoing and creativity. The majority of the respondents also felt that men and women make equally good leaders.

4         Hence, to enable women to realise their leadership potential, we have to put in efforts to make improvements on several fronts. Let me now highlight three – creating equal opportunities for all, building up the capabilities of women, and creating support structures for women in the workplace.

Equal Opportunities for All

5         First, on equal opportunities for all. Creating equal opportunities does not mean giving women preferential treatment, or setting quotas to secure female participation. However, it does mean that any person, regardless of gender, race, religion or other background, is given equal opportunities as any other person with comparable capabilities. In such a meritocratic system, everyone gets an equal chance at higher education, job opportunities, promotions within organisations, and eventually, leadership positions.  What the individual is required to do is to work hard and prove his or her worth.

6         Providing equal opportunities is also good for business. It widens the pool of candidates companies can hire from and enables them to employ the best person for the job. Doing otherwise would cause the company to miss out on precious talent. When employees are treated fairly and based on merit, employees are incentivised to deliver high quality performance, improving the productivity and competitiveness of the company.  More satisfied staff due to fair employment practices also boosts staff morale.

7         However, even when companies recognise the benefits of providing equal opportunities, they may be prevented from doing so by stereotypical biases and traditional mindsets which assume that men either are inherently superior in or should dominate certain corporate roles. In some cases, men may also assume that women with children are less committed to their work due to competing demands from their families. These can lead to employers inadvertently discounting the contributions that women have made to the organisation, as well as the larger contributions these women can make in more senior management positions in future. Companies therefore need to recognise these biases and proactively provide a level-playing field to ensure equal opportunities.

8         Creating equal opportunities is important at the economy-wide level.  Take Singapore as an example. We have limited natural resources, so we depend heavily on our human capital.  To help women realise their potential, we need to provide a high quality education system that is accessible and affordable to all, as well as government support for mid-career training programmes. We have built our society on a meritocratic basis, which ensures that every child, whether girl or boy, has an equal opportunity in education, from nursery to tertiary education. Armed with the requisite knowledge and skills, men and women are equally able to take on the jobs available in the market.

9         The Singapore government also works with employers and unions to implement fair and merit-based employment practices, through the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices. In addition, we are consciously trying to increase the labour force participation rate of women in Singapore, as working women are important contributors to the economy.

Building Up Our Capabilities

10         Second, building up our capabilities. It will be futile if women are given opportunities to excel, but do not have the capability to exploit these opportunities. We therefore have to embrace lifelong learning and continually re-tool and re-skill ourselves. This is particularly pertinent when an economy restructures. For instance, after the recent economic crisis, the following recovery saw some sectors rebound, while others saw prospects that were not as bright. To remain employable, workers have had to learn new skills so that they can contribute in ways different from what they were used to. Women are no different. We need to encourage one another to sign up for courses, conferences and other opportunities to build our own capabilities.

11         Another avenue to build capabilities among women is to create platforms where business and professional women can network, create business contacts, find new business and professional development opportunities, as well as learn from one another. As we climb higher up the corporate ladder, we should proactively seek out opportunities to equip ourselves with new skills that are required so that we can take on greater management responsibilities and to do them effectively. Some of these skills can be acquired through training programmes, but others can only be learnt through people who have walked the path before us.

12         In this regard, I would like to commend the Federation of Business and Professional Women for what it is doing for its members. Through events such as the Asia Pacific Conference today, you are gathering women together to share their views and experiences in different topics that affect women. Besides creating a networking platform, this also enables women to understand different perspectives on each issue and encourages them to pursue personal and professional development for themselves. Your mentoring programme also enables younger women to connect with more experienced ones, so that they can better prepare themselves for taking on leadership roles.

Creating Support Structures for Women in the Workplace

13         Last but not least, we need to create support structures for women in the workplace. As women are called to undertake multiple roles – as worker, wife, daughter and mother – all at the same time, we women generally find it more difficult than men to balance work and family Each of these roles demands much of a woman's attention and energy.

14         Hence, in order to empower women to scale greater heights professionally, support structures need to be created for women, especially those married with children. Some women are fortunate to have strong family support, in the form of mothers or mothers-in-law who help out as child minders while women go to work. For others, companies need to put in place measures that facilitate work-life harmony, such as part-time work and flexible work arrangements, or telecommuting. These measures need not compromise the productivity of women. On the contrary, as women are better supported in fulfilling the responsibilities associated with the different roles they play, they are better able to perform in each role, including delivering stellar work performance. Governments can also play a role to encourage companies in creating work-life balance for their employees. The Singapore government, for example, co-funds the costs incurred by companies in developing and implementing work-life strategies through a program called Work-Life Works! Fund.


15         In conclusion, the empowerment of women is a complex but important endeavour, requiring targeted efforts in several areas. Only when women are empowered can they then realise their full leadership potential contribute even more to making a difference in our society. With that, I wish you all a fruitful and enjoyable conference. Thank you.

2 "Men or Women: Who's the Better Leader?" A Social & Demographic Trends Report by the Pew Research Center, released on 25 Aug 08