Officially, I’m going to be an adult in two years. And thanks to well-meaning advice from relatives and friends, I’m pretty sure what kind of ride I’m in for.
In true Singaporean fashion, most of the advice is on how to maximise my first years in adulthood: Which is the best university, should I take a gap year, what starting pay should I ask for.
Regrets, they share casually, with a wry smile or an alamak, and laugh it off as “life lessons”. But when my female advisors speak, they always seem to share a wisdom that greatly unsettles me.
The recurring warning is over what looking after loved ones would do to your career.
Things will get tough if I want to start a family, for example. Some of my female mentors tell me to not have high hopes when building my career. Others warn that once you leave the workforce to start a family, you’d have to work twice as hard to get back in.
“Even now, when my kids are independent and stable, I hope I don’t lose my job,” says one who works in a corporate office. “I don’t think any other company would hire me.”
Another, in her forties, recounts how her maternity leave was rejected when she needed it the most. She ended up working during her third trimester, shuffling about with swollen ankles and a big belly. “Sometimes, you’re all on your own. Don’t do what I did, which was to give in, and fight for your maternity rights,” she sighs.
Even my mother, who was a thriving career woman before I was born, knows the pain. “My boss almost cried when I handed in my resignation letter,” she tells me. “He said that I’d done good work, but I had to choose. And I decided to take care of you.”
This long-running belief that women have to be the primary caregivers in a family affects more than just those I know.
The number of working Singaporean women fall off after age 30, and continue to decline into their late 30s and 40s. This is a sharp contrast to other First World countries, where women in their late 30s have a much easier time going back to the working world after starting a family.
While some of my friends dream of being a stay-home mother with a gaggle of children, I’m still weighing my options.
Frankly, I’m still trying to get over the shock that there exists a possibility that somewhere down the road, women like me would have to make a choice between a loving home or a fulfilling career.
Why can’t it be both?
If life’s a race, women seem to have to run an extra lap simply to keep up with the other runners.
I realise that we have to work harder to prove ourselves. But grappling with gender roles is not exclusive to females, and it doesn’t happen only in the workplace.
Equal treatment, equal responsibilities?
The debate on getting women to contribute their part in protecting the nation recently made a comeback in the conversation on gender equality. The argument is that since Singaporean men have to do National Service, women should too.
Equal treatment can only come when equal responsibility happens.
I don’t fully understand the perils my guy friends go through in their two years of service. They share their war stories with me, and sometimes the punishments get so creative I let a laugh escape. They shake their head when I do that.
“You’ll never know how traumatic that was, man. Lucky, you’re a girl.”
Men don’t have the better end of the stick. It’s the same stick of expectation, hitting us where it hurts.
Men too, deal with expectations due to their gender, like having to be the primary breadwinner for the family or not being able to show emotion toward their peers – a result of toxic masculinity.
Boys find themselves excluded from social circles, being subjected to bullying and name-calling if they don’t conform to standards of “manliness”.
A friend of mine serving his National Service is exempted from most outfield exercises due to mental health issues. He tells me that his platoon mates would snigger behind his back and suggest that he is a chao keng (Hokkien for malingerer).
While I’m happy that there is a review on gender norms in our society, we don’t have to depend on the Government or the corporate world to make the first move. We can take part of the matter into our own hands.
Now, most men and women feel that they have unrealistic social expectations imposed on them due to gender. So instead of blaming the opposite sex for their shortcomings, lamenting how easy it is for the other side or complaining that they just “don’t get it”, why don’t we work with each other?
In the fight for equality, it’s not all guys vs girls
Each gender has its own bullet to bite.
For women, the narrative that we are primarily responsible for taking care of things at home or looking after our loved ones has done damage to our mental well-being.
Take for example, a recent Workplace Resilience survey that showed that there were more women stressed out over working from home, thanks to having to manage household chores and work at the same time.
Imagine having to soothe a crying baby in the middle of a Zoom meeting, or running to save the clothes from a sudden downpour while you’re combing through an email thread.
For men, the narrative they have to deal with is having to suppress their emotions for most of their lives and having material wealth as the only barometer of success.
Even as education levels equalise between genders and the economy opens up to more women in leadership roles, many parts of our society still expects the man to earn more than his spouse.
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A friend of mine married a woman who had a higher salary than he did and received an earful from his disappointed grandfather. He admitted that her higher pay was a point of resentment at first, but they eventually worked things out.
In the same way women are expected to do the chores at home and keep an eye on the family, men are expected to clock in extra hours to support their families. Men also experience mental health issues, sexual and domestic abuse, even though they are reported in far smaller numbers compared to women.
I believe that as much as we women want men to share the workload in the household and stand up against gender disparities, we should also help men to speak up about their emotions and validate the feelings they have been taught to suppress.
Narrowing the gender gap
Gender gaps and roles will never disappear. But it’s up to us to narrow it. These roles are often enforced on us when we are young; it is a slow build-up leading to a big skew in a potentially harmful direction.
Just think about the times when teachers have called for “a few strong boys” to shift classroom furniture, or hearing comments like “you run like a girl” in primary school and being given cooking toys or Barbie dolls that you aren’t interested in.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve received a withering look from elders who tell me to be more caring and sensitive when I banter or engage in some rough-and-tumble with my cousins.
I still feel my insides churn when my little brother, 15, gets told that he’s the man in the family and he should pay for his older sister (who clearly has a job).
Adults aren’t immune to gender blaming and stereotypes too: How dad isn’t giving enough money to support the family or how mum doesn’t do her fair share of chores.
This is a world that I don’t want to grow up into.
So we need to have productive conversations about how gender roles affect both sexes. There is nothing “Asian” about traditional gender roles, and I think we should call them out if they prevent a level playing field for women in the workforce, or stunt the emotional development of men.
More safe spaces need to be created to facilitate these conversations. While there are some on a global scale like UN Women and Men Engage Alliance, we should create safe spaces within our social circles and home environment.
For parents, remember that you play a key role in reconstructing gender stereotypes. There are resources to help you understand what to watch out for before you say anything that may stereotype gender to children.
The key is to keep an open mind. So what if your daughter is fascinated by STEM subjects or your son enjoys following the latest fashion trends? It’s okay to accept their interests just as they are.
My brother loves to draw and is an excellent flutist. Yet he is still rather shy about his doodles and interest in music, as he has been told that art is supposed to be more for women and that the flute is a “girly” instrument.
All it took for him to feel proud of his work was a casual inquiry to see his latest drawing or ask about his practice sessions. Now, whenever he completes a sketch or nails a particularly challenging ditty, he comes to tell me, his face shining with excitement (although the teenager that he is still tries, albeit poorly, to conceal it).
Separating interests from gender roles is one simple thing parents can do to help their children tremendously.
Don’t be so quick to brush aside the travails of their growing years. When they come to you with stories of bullying or falling out among friends, don’t dismiss them with throwaway comments like “boys will be boys” or that “girls can’t live without gossip and drama”. These issues may seem unimportant to you, but these are the first hurdles they meet in life.
If parents don’t help their children break down these toxic issues surrounding gender roles, it can lead to long-term impact on the child’s view of themselves.
Right now, I’m uncertain about many things at this juncture between adolescence and adulthood.
But I know there is one thing I want to start early in my first step into adulting. That is to treat all genders with love and respect. And to walk with the firm belief that while we all go through different challenges, we should all join hands to mitigate the impact of gender inequality in our society.