True power lies within

The dizzying heights of Singapore’s most powerful

And so to Singapore last week, for CARE’s third successive experience of partnering the annual “Sharing Value Asia” Forum – this year attracting a 30% uplift in delegates since the 2013 event, and focusing on what is becoming a fast emerging consensus around how the “Power of Many” may yet be our best ticket to solving some of the region’s pressing social and environmental dilemmas.

I have written before about “cross-sector” collaboration and partnerships. About forging alliances with shared objectives where the private, public and NGO sectors can work together, realising mutually beneficial outcomes.

This flavour of narrative was once more in play in Singapore, and I welcome that.

A note-worthy feather in the cap at this year’s event, however, was the insertion of a sub-theme to the discussions – which the organisers chose to call “The Era of Empowerment” – culminating in a distinguished closing panel of private sector (Diageo and Walmart), government (Singaporean Ministry of Health) and civil society (CARE and UN Women) representatives, addressing the issue of gender equality in the workplace.

Whilst I appreciate for many commentators that it might seem unnecessary to spend thousands of dollars convening 180 people to debate the ‘business case’ for gender equality – do we still really need to be making these cases? – the over-riding evidence reported on at last week’s Forum about gender inequality, across all sectors, is hard to dismiss.

From my perspective, debate on this we must and, where need be, affirmative action has to be the only way forward.

Before we even get onto a subject dear to NGO’s hearts – that of the world’s marginalised, and vulnerable women – let’s begin with Singapore.

The country lags behind others in the region in terms of the number of women of working age who are employed (approx 53%). Each year over 500,000 women are incentivised not to return to work after giving birth due to the costs associated with doing so – a woman needing to earn well over $1,200 a month just to cover the childcare expenditure of bringing up children.

Consider also that 70% of jobs in Singapore are provided by SME’s (small and medium enterprises). Less than 10% of SMEs provide family care leave, only 1.5% offer childcare benefits and just 3.8% have flexible work arrangements. For more data on this, click here:

Creating a groundswell of engagement and activism on gender issues is essential.

Last week’s event represented one such moment in time, and a gathering of current and future decision makers equipped, today, with fresh sets of data and an invigorated sense of urgency around how it can be at the discretion of individuals to positively influence the cultural, societal and corporate norms currently exacerbating gender inequities.

And what then of CARE’s target groups at the lowest end of a country’s demographic?Women cut out of supply chains, pigeon-holed as being capable ‘only’ to manage affairs in the household. Women suffering violence at the hands of their husbands or other family members, excluded from making their own choices in society. Subservient and powerless. Without voice.

How can increasing the percentages of women in a corporate board room in Singapore possibly have any viable positive knock on effects to a mother of five children living in rural Bangladesh? For that matter, what differences can be made for that same mother if more women were in charge of the Bangladeshi private sector?

There are no simple answers to these questions. At the Forum we heard from one speaker of how she recalled working for a female manager who refused to interview women between the ages of 25-45 years old, so as to avoid employing staff who might inevitably require maternity leave away from their jobs. Who knows, really, whether a company led exclusively by women would ultimately have a better chance of addressing society’s complex issues – and gender equality – better than one led exclusively by men?

Surely, diversity in a workplace is key, and diversity on every level – gender, age, skills, ethnicity, experiences. To go one step further, one company at the event claimed diversity to be the only thing worth investing in to ensure competitive advantage in today’s market.

We also heard how “doing the right thing” as a business, by implementing gender sensitive ways of working, still provides a common driver for many companies in the overall mix of reasoning. Gender equality makes for good business, and for good ethics – both are important.

Yet, when challenged on the issue of a more balanced approach to offering employees maternity and paternity leave (even going so far as promoting “shared childcare” for parents/employees) one company was quick to rebut this as not viable. As a proposition it was too expensive for (his) business to accommodate, too complicated. But what of the costs incurred by that very same company in the future to recruit new employees, replacing those disgruntled at such unfair and unequal HR standards? We know retention and recruitment costs can cripple any organisation, and so why are companies still loathe to support more equitable policies?

Perhaps the answer to that lies in some part in what my colleague from Cambodia, Stav Zotalis, worded so emphatically when taking her turn on the closing panel discussion.

On this subject more broadly, her message was that every organisation must “aim higher, much higher” in their approach to gender in the workplace. Furthermore, when addressing the issue of “empowerment”, no matter what the context, Stav pointed out that people so often fail to close in on the word “power” which sits at the heart of any variation of empowerment. This instantly made a connection with her audience.

A light bulb moment.

Ultimately, all relationships in life draw their characteristics from the dynamic of power. Whether it be that of employer to employee, buyer to seller, beneficiary to benefactor. The contemporary spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle believes that true power comes from within and that “power over others is weakness disguised as strength”. Maybe he is right?

The power to make decisions and have choice – to purchase, to move about freely, to access products, services and information. These are some of the raw ingredients to fuelling an empowered status for any human being.

And the very same thing (a decision, a choice, access) which might be taken for granted by one individual will be sought after and aspired to – in some cases for their entire lives – by another.

Changing paradigms in this regard takes time. However, recognising that this dynamic of power lies beneath any form of empowerment, and is absolutely fundamental to how every one of us lives our lives is, perhaps, a solid starting point from which to move forward.

And move forward we must on this agenda – whether you are a government minister, a housewife, self-employed, a CEO, or a father of two like me, typing these words in a coffee shop in Sapa, Vietnam, and trying to make sense of what my daughters will make of this one day, when they choose to read it for themselves.

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