One conversation, one idea, one person to make a change

A few years ago, a woman reached out to the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO). She had left her old job after signing a contract with another company, but before her start date, learned she was pregnant.

In the interest of transparency, she disclosed her pregnancy to the company’s human resources department, only to have her contract unceremoniously terminated.

I had been at WAO for less than six months at the time, but my executive director asked me and my teammate to accompany her to lunch to meet the woman.

Over a meal of aglio olio and rendang penne at our go-to place, we talked for over two hours about the woman’s experience.

She highlighted the deep frustration she had felt from losing a position she had secured as a result of her substantial qualifications and hard work, as well as her frustration with the lack of protection afforded by the law.

Her options for recourse were limited, and although she did bring a case to the Industrial Court and eventually to the magistrate’s court via a civil suit, she did not prevail.

In part, this was because while the reason for her sudden termination was obvious, the company had been careful not to state it overtly, and there is currently no law protecting individuals from pregnancy discrimination.

Although the woman did not get justice, she wanted to ensure other women did not encounter the same kind of discrimination.

This is how WAO’s advocacy around amendments to the Employment Act 1955 began, with one woman’s experience of discrimination and desire to create change.

After that lunch, we regrouped to discuss how to move forward, and decided to launch a campaign, asking women to share their stories of discrimination. Many did, and we put up these stories of display as part of an exhibition at Publika Shopping Gallery, engaging the public in dialogue around the issue.

More recently, WAO collaborated with research company Vase.ai on a survey to understand the prevalence of discrimination against women in the workplace.

The survey revealed that 56 per cent of women have experienced one or more forms of gender discrimination, including getting questions or comments about their marital status or plans to start a family and being passed up for promotion despite being more qualified than the other candidates.

The survey also found that 47 per cent of women had been asked about their marital status during an interview, while 15 per cent were asked about their plans to get pregnant.

The Human Resources Ministry has proposed amendments to the Employment Act which, among other things, would introduce a provision to protect against discrimination based on gender for employees.

While this is a positive and necessary step, it is not enough.

We must also extend this protection to include job-seekers.

Without this, women will continue to experience invasions into their personal lives with questions about their plans to get married and become pregnant, and they will continue to be denied opportunities they are qualified for simply because of their gender.

Gender discrimination can be direct, such as invasive questions about one’s personal life. It can also be indirect, such as holding important discussions during evening dinners which employees who are mothers might be unable to attend.

While each of us has inherent biases that we must be aware of and overcome, the law must account for such biases and ensure their existence does not disadvantage qualified individuals or keep them out of the workplace altogether.

Today, as we await the tabling of the proposed amendments to the Employment Act, I look back on that lunch as one of the most important learning experiences of my career.

The woman we met that day – Tan May Lee – is now a member of WAO’s executive committee, and an advocate in her own right in the journey towards gender equality.

Although advocacy and bringing about change requires hard work and persistence, it can start simply. One conversation. One idea. One person. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

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