Between Career and Family: Are These Southeast Asian Countries Doing Enough to Support Women Participation at Work?


More women are joining the workforce nowadays to securely balance their commitment to family matters with personal career aspirations. No matter where they are placed at the workplace—in the business or support units, their sustainability must be ensured to obtain the desired gender inclusivity rate. However, does this only apply to industrial sector? If it is to ensure women participation in countries where most women work in more traditional sectors, will the encouragement be the same? We take Singapore and Vietnam cases as the samples on how to address the support to promote women participation at work.

In a more developed Southeast Asian country such as Singapore, in 2017 the country has shown some apparent progress of women participation at workforce. According to a statement conveyed by Grace Fu, the Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth in early 2017, the country still had remaining 40% of the total labor participation rates to be filled in order for Singapore to achieve the steady number. With this figure, the Minister encouraged more women to participate in the workforce, so that more diverse employees can contribute. Grace Fu also argued, the need to achieve more diversity in the workplace would positively impact creativity and innovation at work.

Singapore’s effort in supporting women to participate in the workforce has been quite tangible. A survey acquired by the Ministry of Manpower revealed that the labor force participation rate (LFPR) for women in 2016 was 60.4%. Compared to 2015 record, the figure indicated a similar rate. However, ten years before, in 2006, LFPR for women was only 54.3%.


Have been working to increase the rate, Grace Fu said the government has implemented policies to support women participation by creating more maternity benefits and leaving schemes for working parents—in order for the Singaporean families to attain balanced parental shared responsibilities.

Maternity leave in Singapore would be given to pregnant women employees for 16 weeks, and you are still get paid by the companies during your leave. For the first and second births, the employer would be responsible to pay for your full two months’ salary or equals to the first 8 weeks, while the other 8-week salary would be still paid by your employer but this amount of money can be reimbursed by the government. Moreover, if it is your third or fourth births, all of your salary during the maternity leave would be reimbursed by the government.

In early 2018, a survey by Human Resources Magazine’s Senior Journalist Jerene Ang found some organisations in Singapore have made impressive progress in promoting gender diversity by adjusting their policies to support women in leadership roles. CapitaLan Group, for instance, reported that the company has 52% women in managerial positions. Citi Singapore was also proud to announce that they offer various development programs for women employees at all career stages including a six-month program throughout Asia Pacific countries to develop business pipelines for their women employees, while L’Oréal Singapore provides flexible work arrangements for employees including work from home and also flexible office hours.

Another Southeast Asian country that has recorded significant progress in developing gender-inclusive laws is Vietnam. The country itself was one of the first countries that ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (UN CEDAW) in 1982. Impressive rate in terms of women’s labor force participation can also be found in Vietnam—with more than 73% and this figure is considered high compared to other Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless, within this high rate comes another fact that Vietnamese women are often found in untrained and unskilled labor sectors instead of in male-dominated higher paid jobs. Income gap between women and men workers is still apparent, in which agriculture and industry sectors hold the highest income-gap differences even though Vietnam has already issued supportive legal provisions to promote gender-inclusive work environment such as the 2012 Labor Code. Thus, a lesson learned from Vietnam case is, if a country falls in to the grey area category—or in other words, ‘in-between’ the shift from agriculture-based structure to industry and service sectors; then any policies to drive women participation at work would not entirely solve the whole case.

The shift to industry and service sectors should not discourage women in agriculture. Partly because, agriculture remains the main source of income in Vietnam where women take up to half of the labor force especially in the northern part of the country. Departing from this fact, promoting women participation at work does not always mean to encourage more women to join companies or industry and service sectors, because more inclusive business whose field is dominated by women especially in developing countries must be given more attention. In some countries, it is pointless to only focus on facilitating women employees in industry or service sectors if there are more of them in agricultural sector instead.

Aware of this condition, the Enhancing Opportunities for Women’s Enterprises (EOWE) program initiated by SNV established the Gender-responsive Inclusive Business Support Package in four Vietnamese provinces in 2017. The purpose of this initiative is to equip small and medium enterprises, small business units, and cooperatives with the awareness of women participation in agricultural sectors, that women have skills to be placed at any levels in business operations of agriculture, from producers to customers. This initiative also brought SNV to deliver the concepts of economic empowerment through women participation in agriculture, the core understanding on how to help women’s lives through inclusive business, and when it is all transparent, we can see the gaps where women are able to fill in to bolster agri-business.

The participants whose operational business encompass in agricultural sectors such as rice, sweet potato, peanut, fruits, and others were allowed to submit their concept notes along with brief gender-responsive inclusive business idea proposals on gender responsive inclusive business idea to develop their business operations in agricultural sectors. They were all free to propose new feasible agri-business model ideas that benefit women in the sector, and later, the proposals submitted by the selected enterprises will be carried out by SNV. Vietnam needs more of the similar programs to educate both the women in agricultural sectors and the agri-business owners whose workers are women farmers. A gender specialist Dr. Thelma Paris stated, to increase farm productivity, we need modern agricultural technologies to assist the work, and gender-sensitive should be placed as a priority because women who juggle between agricultural work and domestic chores are often unskilled, not to mention the agricultural technologies are not adjusted to women’s physical limitations. Through Vietnam’s EOWE initiative whose assistance package also consists of technology techniques, women would be extremely benefited and thus are also encouraged to enter the agricultural sector. In a long run, their roles would be more recognised in agricultural growth.

We hope you now know that the notion to promote gender inclusivity and equality at work does not always about adjusting maternal leaves at work or creating policies to fairly favour women employees. Singapore and Vietnam are two examples on how we should address the same question of how to promote and support more women to enter job markets—but in different sectors. Thus, to support women participation, we should investigate first: in which sectors do they belong to?

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Nadya Yolanda Moeda
A former travel blogger who is now a full time consultant & loves to write about everything under the sun