The world of work doesn’t work as well for women, as it does for men, recent LinkedIn data shows. Today, the number of men outnumber women in leadership roles. While Singapore has a higher proportion of female leaders when compared to the major economies analysed in APAC (India and Australia), men still make up the majority of leadership roles (64 percent). In fact, the chances of women making it to leadership positions drop after the first 10 years of their careers—right before they reach the peak of their careers.
The reasons for this are neither waning ambition nor talent drain, but likely due to the double shift of work and personal labour that women are expected to put in. A woman who works a full-time 9 to 5 job is often still expected to run the household. Even with help—which is only available to some, whether from domestic workers or family members—this can be a massive mental load that ultimately takes a toll. With limited time and bandwidth, it can be extremely difficult to juggle their professional and personal lives, ultimately driving them to put their careers on the back-burner, even if that is not what they truly desire. After all, something has to give.
So how do we ensure that women don’t have to give up one pursuit for another? The answer to that could be workplace flexibility—this may include flexible work hours, work-from-home policies, and more importantly, a trusted environment, where companies empower their employees to work during the hours they are most efficient. For women who manage both their jobs and their households, this flexibility allows them to maximise their productivity by dividing their time in a way that works best for them. The connection between workplace flexibility and women thriving in their careers is clear: global data from LinkedIn shows that women are 24 percent more likely to apply to remote roles, while 54 percent of female respondents said that if they were to have increased flexibility at work, it would improve their work-life balance.
“Flexibility in the workplace is really based on a mindset of trust that a company takes on, empowering their employees to work during the hours they are most efficient”
Aside from flexibility in the workplace, we need to start to normalise career breaks, in order to create an equal workforce. Women are more likely to have career gaps on their CV from taking time off to build their families. Very often though, many women are penalised for these breaks—some have to settle for a lower salary, and others are told that they lack the years of experience. This stigma must be broken—not just amongst business leaders or hiring managers, but among women themselves. In fact, many businesses suggest that instead of shying away from discussing their career breaks during job interviews, women should highlight it as an asset, and discuss the skills they have picked up during their time away from work.
Thankfully, research also shows that increasingly, more organisations are keen to provide greater flexibility to their employees. Career breaks are also gaining greater acceptance, with most employers starting to realise that candidates who have taken a career break may form an important and untapped talent pool.
To celebrate this progress and pave the way for more, we are showcasing three C-suite executives at the top of their fields. These are women who have moved past these challenges, and made the world of work work for them instead. Here, they reveal their best lessons and career advice for other women seeking equality in the workplace.
Sher-Li Torrey on taking a career gap
The founder of Mums@Work quit her job after realising that balancing motherhood with a full-time work commitment was a struggle. Her organisation—which she started as a hobby in 2010—is now fully committed to helping mothers re-enter the workforce by providing them with job opportunities, training and coaching.
One of the barriers mothers face in re-joining the workforce is explaining the career break in their resume. “Unfortunately, the mindset amongst most employers is still very old-fashioned,” she adds. “Individual hiring managers tend to ask questions like ‘why did you take a career break?’ or ‘are you sure you can commit to this job?’ and these questions can be uncomfortable for women. I can understand where the company is coming from, but surely there is a better way to phrase these questions such that it is not so demoralising for the interviewee?”
“I don’t think it’s fair that you should get penalised at work just because you chose to prioritise life”
A key part of what Mums@Work does is to educate employers on being more receptive and open to hiring mothers. Firms-aside, mothers themselves also tend to be fearful about re-joining the workforce. “When we hold our career events, I see mothers go up to the recruiters and say ‘sorry, I have a career break’ and I always tell them not to apologise,” she recalls. “I don’t think it’s fair that you should get penalised at work just because you chose to prioritise life.”
Apart from de-stigmatising such beliefs about career breaks, Mums@Work also helps to equip mothers with skill sets to empower them in the workforce. “It’s amazing to see these women and mothers gain confidence after sitting down with recruiters and working out how they can improve their resumes and interview techniques. The idea of having someone invest time and effort into helping you is empowering and it sends the signal that ‘you are worthy’ and that you are good enough to get back out there in the world,” she adds.
Nurul Hussain on uplifting women in tech
Founder of The Codette Project, Nurul Hussain, was inspired by the Black Girls Code project which originated in the USA. She recalls that there were fewer conversations about helping women succeed in tech when she first founded the organisation in 2015, unlike today. But there is still more room for growth, which is something The Codette Project strives towards.
It operates on three pillars: skills development, community building and reclaiming narratives on what success looks like for underrepresented women in tech. In particular, her company has helped to provide support and training for women in skills including data science, social media marketing, and coding. The Codette Project also curates and develops events like Singapore’s first women-only hackathon Tech for Good, and the Codette Cares scholarship programme, both of which help to increase access and opportunities for underrepresented communities in tech.
“What is important is that we recognise that diversity, equality and justice are all important aspects in our journey to becoming a better society”
Nurul explains that the tech industry may be male-dominated but it is well aware of its limitations. “International tech companies are often at the forefront of being more inclusive because they recognise and accept the need to have diverse and equal workforces,” she adds. “It’s not perfect but they are moving far quicker than some of the smaller companies in Asia. It’s important for us to look at and celebrate the companies that are doing well and see what we can learn from them.”
For Nurul, the conversation surrounding inclusivity is an ongoing one. “I don’t think there is one definition as to what inclusivity should be,” she remarks. “What is important is that we recognise that diversity, equality and justice are all important aspects in our journey to becoming a better society. And this principle doesn’t just apply to the tech industry—it should apply across the board. We should be levelling the playing field for women in the workforce as a whole.”
Juliana Chan on making your career work for you
Juliana Chan is no stranger to the courage—and fear—it takes to make a career change. She started her career in biology at the University of Cambridge 20 years ago, where she studied biochemistry and molecular biology.
Then, 10 years ago, she decided to pursue a career in another passion—writing. “I’ve been writing since I was five. I was told that you should always write from what you know, so it made sense to become a science communicator.”
The idea that this would give her more work-life balance made the switch even more attractive. “I had three big responsibilities—two children, a research career and I was the editor-in-chief of a magazine I started, Asian Scientist Magazine. I knew I had to drop one if I was to do well in anything,” she says. “So I met an executive coach. I knew what I wanted to do, but I just needed the courage to leave academia; to walk away from the 15 years I had already put into my chosen career, and from the people who had become my second family.”
“My mentor once advised, ‘Take a look at a woman in your current career, 10 years on. Is this where you want to be when you are at the same stage of life?’”
That was when Wildtype Media Group was born. It started as a small team working mainly on Asian Scientist Magazine in digital and print, and then became a full-service communications agency dedicated to working with companies in the healthcare industry.
Today, Wildtype Media runs on a fully remote model. Chan admits that adopting a flexible working model did not come naturally to her, but now, she can testify to the operational and personal benefits that come with it. “I have so much more time with my children now. I get to hug and kiss them when they return home on the school bus, and I even have time to help my daughter with her schoolwork,” she reflects.
“The first step to making your career work for you is to identify what you actually want to do. My mentor once advised, ‘Take a look at a woman in your current career, 10 years on. Is this where you want to be when you are at the same stage of life?”
“It’s important also to see if what you want to do is truly suited to your lifestyle—once you understand this, you’ll find that it will become a very powerful motivator for any career change. Make your career work for you, and not the other way around.”
In the cover image, Juliana Chan wears Zara cape and pants; Stella McCartney bracelets (worn as necklace); COS necklace (worn as bracelet)
Photography Sayher Heffernan
Styling Jasmine Ashvinkumar
Hair and make-up Sha Shamsi using Chanel Beauty and KMS
Hair and make-up assistant Noor Faseha