Having previously run renowned advertising agencies such as Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett, and with more than 300 creative awards to her name, it would be fair to say that Linda Locke has had a distinguished career over four decades.
Locke’s climb to the top of the corporate ladder, however, was not always smooth. Indeed, among the challenges she had to overcome during her career was that of gender inequality in the workplace.
Speaking to The Pride last month on the sidelines of the event, From Now On (Women Taking Charge), presented by lyf and Epigram Books, Locke said that male chauvinism was especially prevalent in cities like New York and London in the 80s and 90s. Women, she recalled, had to “fight very hard” in order to make a name for themselves in the advertising industry there.
Locke, who has worked in Singapore for more than 30 years, admits that the problem of gender inequality in the workplace is “not as acute” in Asia as it is in the West. Nonetheless, there were still times where she felt she was being discriminated against because of her gender.
In one instance, Locke was having a meal with her former company’s Regional Managing Director (MD) and the regional team when she found out that her job title and job scope had been changed without any prior discussion with her.
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Locke, who was then the company’s Regional Chairman, recounted: “I was suddenly told that I was now the joint-CEO of Southeast-Asia, and the MD had already announced it during a conference in Beijing. The MD told me he had informed me via fax, but I didn’t receive it.
“There was also no discussion about my new job…there was no talk about my salary, no job description,” said Locke. She added that her conversation with her MD was one of the most idiotic she has ever had. “To this day, I still believe he wouldn’t have dared to talk like that to a man.”
Another time, while working in a different company, Locke had an argument with her MD because he refused to give an employee, who happened to be a woman, a “well deserved” pay raise.
“His argument was that we were under threat (financially) because we might lose some business, but I had a counter-argument for that,” said Locke, who was the chairman then.
“But my views were dismissed, and I felt that if a man had made the same argument as I did, (the MD) may have been more receptive to it.”
Sadly, Locke’s experiences with gender bias are not unique, and are perhaps reflective of the lens through which women are commonly viewed in the workplace.
A study done by Harvard Business Review in 2017 showed that men generally get credit for voicing out their ideas, while women do not.
The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE)’s Nabilah Husna told The Pride that their organisation receives a fair amount of complaints revolving around gender inequality in the workplace.
“Women in various fields regularly report to us experiences of sexist condescension in their professional lives, at every stage from job interview to assignment of tasks and communications in meetings,” she said.
“In addition, when women state their opinions or negotiate for higher pay or promotions, they may be labelled ‘unlikeable’ or ‘aggressive’, and penalised, while the same behaviour would be accepted or even welcomed in men as ‘assertive’ or ‘showing leadership’. Such stereotyping may lead to a bias in assessing women’s performance at work and undervaluing what they do.”
Disparity in salaries between men and women is also a common problem.
According to a study conducted by consumer research firm ValuePenguin last year, the median monthly salary of males in Singapore is S$3,991. This is around 18 per cent higher than the median monthly salary for women here, which stands at S$3,382.
And, earlier in February this year, Singapore’s Diversity Action Committee (DAC) announced that only 13.1 per cent of directors of the top-100 Singapore Exchange (SGX)-listed companies are women.
Meanwhile, of the 20 Cabinet Ministers of Singapore, only two – Ms Grace Fu (Minister for Culture, Community and Youth) and Mrs Josephine Teo (Minister, Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Home Affairs and Second Minister for Manpower) – are women.
The lack of women representation at board level in particular is an issue that concerns Locke. “I am still extremely surprised at how few women are on boards and I’m not sure why that is…but it’s unacceptable,” the 64-year-old declared.
According to Nabilah, one of the major challenges women face when trying to progress in their career comes from the “unequal distribution of caregiving responsibilities”. Last year, about 300,000 women stopped working due to “family responsibilities”, compared to 12,000 men.
Added Nabilah: “Besides being pressured to drop out of the labour force to give care full-time, many women have also been dismissed as a result of taking time off work to give care. Some face difficulty finding work with flexible arrangements or eldercare leave – Singapore does not have legislated eldercare leave, and there is no protection for workers who are discriminated against due to their care responsibilities.
“This has a direct impact on the kinds of opportunities women are given at work, and the kinds of work that are open to them.”
In addition, Nabilah said that workplace harassment, and the lack of sufficient support and systems to deal with the problem, can also impede a woman’s progress in an organisation.
“Although the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment advises employers to develop a strong anti-harassment policy, it has not been made mandatory,” Nabilah revealed.
“Some of our clients who experienced workplace harassment have reported that their human resource departments were not equipped to provide them with support, while some employers even make employees sign non-disclosure agreements to prevent them from speaking out about the harassment. Many survivors have left their jobs in the belief that their harassers will not be held accountable.”
Despite the many problems still surrounding gender inequality in the workplace, Locke said that the tide is turning, with many organisations starting to recognise the value of female employees.
“After all, people are starting to realise the decision-making power that women have, and therefore it is in an organisation’s interests to understand that perspective by having women in senior positions.”
Indeed, two Singapore-listed companies, DBS Group Holdings and City Developments Limited (CDL), were even included in Bloomberg’s Gender-Equality Index (GEI) – which measures gender equality across internal company statistics, employee policies, external community support and engagement, as well as gender-conscious product offerings – earlier this year.
Speaking about the company’s inclusion in the index, DBS CEO Piyush Gupta said: “We believe that when you achieve a critical mass of women across all levels, this will make a difference in an organisation’s ability to succeed and contributes to our ability to consistently punch above our weight.”
CDL CEO Sherman Kwek echoed Gupta’s sentiment. He explained: “We have always believed in the importance of gender diversity and strive hard to make it part of our corporate culture.
“In doing so, it has enabled us to benefit hugely from the unique perspectives and immense creativity. By harnessing the diversity of our talent pool…it has given us a strong strategic advantage when it comes to decision-making and operations.”
Ultimately, though, Nabilah believes that it will take the efforts of everyone – from the Government to organisations – working together to finally solve this long-standing problem.
“It’s heartening to see that there are Singapore-listed companies in Bloomberg’s GEI, and we hope more companies will be encouraged to take further steps to ensure that there is fair representation in their boardrooms and workplaces,” said Nabilah.
“The Government, too, plays a big role in setting the standard for fair employment practices and protection against employment discrimination. But, in order to truly progress as a society that is compassionate and inclusive, we should all start by challenging our own attitudes and ideas about gender roles.”
AWARE’s tips for organisations to battle gender inequality in the workplace
1) Set targets for women’s representation at higher levels of decision-making, and consciously work towards them.
2) Adopt a “no manel” policy. All male staff can be required to turn down any opportunities to speak on panels with no women.
3) Diversity training can sensitise decision-makers to unconscious bias, so they are more mindful of how this may be affecting their own decisions and evaluations.
4) Improve pay transparency so that women can see where there are gaps, empowering them to negotiate. Men can do much to assist their female colleagues just by disclosing to them how much they earn.
5) Flexible working hours and a recognition of the domestic needs of all employees – regardless of gender – should be made a norm.