“But human resources experts and mothers-to-be say numbers do not tell the full story, as there are subtle ways of discrimination at the workplace” (Pregnant Workers Still “Face Subtle Discrimination”, TODAY).
I applaud TODAY for bringing attention to the issue of subtle workplace discrimination faced by mothers and mothers-to-be. It is critical to go beyond the number of pregnant women unfairly dismissed provided by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) – when “there are subtle ways of discrimination at the workplace” (TODAY, Jun. 19) – to uncover both discriminatory practices as well as their prevalence in Singapore. In fact, the newspaper’s own Facebook post for this article drew a worrying number of anecdotes, ranging from dismissals after requests for redeployment were turned down, to the creation of perceived inconveniences or responsibilities upon pregnancy.
In this vein, a representative perception research study which surveys or interviews mothers and mothers-to-be on their workplace experience should prove instructive. Dismissal of mothers on maternity is unlawful, and therefore these cases are more straightforward, yet we need a better understanding of the grey areas not covered, instead of drawing conclusions from the fact that cases of dismissal appeals have gone down from 90 in 2012 to 57 in 2016. At the moment, Singaporeans are left with more questions than answers, and it would appear that the MOM – beyond these figures – has gaps in its knowledge: What are the forms of subtle workplace discrimination, how prevalent are they, and when are dismissals deemed unlawful? What are historical examples of unlawful dismissals, and are there ways through which employers potentially exploit loopholes? And across a longer historical timeframe, what are the trends? Can more, as a consequence, be done?
The public value of such a study is clear, given broader policies to boost the national birthrate, to provide young children with conducive family environments to grow up in, and to facilitate female participation in the workplace. More crucially, there must be opportunities for grievances to be redress, as well as to prevent employers from perpetuating or even institutionalising such discriminatory practices. Already, at home, (working) women in Singapore bear the burden of childbirth and oftentimes – in the early years, and beyond – of child-rearing, and the least we can do is to grant them equal opportunities at the workplace, without adding to the stress of pregnancy.