The word has been pretty buzzy lately, but what does it mean beyond the t-shirt slogans?
Feminism isn’t a new thing. The term was coined in the 1830s, gained currency with the women’s liberation movement in the US in the 1910s, and hasn’t gone away since.
Now, feminism is a worldwide phenomenon. But before we get into that, it’s important to define it. It’s not about man-bashing, bra-burning or saying women are better than men. Sure, there are many schools of thought when it comes to the details, but its basic premise is equality. As Emma Watson said to The Telegraph earlier this year, “Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom. It’s about liberation. It’s about equality.”
These days, it’s more visible than ever, whether it’s watching the “pu**y-grabbing” President of the United States talk about women like they’re objects, seeing celebs step out in their “We Should All Be Feminists” tees or reading that women make less than men in top management positions in Singapore. It’s clearly a hot topic, but what’s behind the recent surge of interest?
Feminism in the news
In 2014, Sony’s e-mails were hacked. The incident revealed how much less Jennifer Lawrence, an Oscar-winning actress with a proven track record at the box office, made for the movie American Hustle compared to her male co-stars Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale. Jennifer spoke out about this, saying, “But if I’m honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realised every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being “difficult” or “spoiled’.”
Last year, Maria Grazia Chiuri became the first female designer to front a major fashion house. That same fashion house, Dior, then went on to lead the feminism fashion revolution with their iconic feminist slogan tees. But also last year, Donald Trump became President of the United States. During the lead-up to his election, The Washington Post released a video about the thenpresidential candidate and TV host Billy Bush having a conversation. In the video, Trump described his approach with women: “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything... grab them by the pussy.” The uproar it caused was only matched by the surprise at his election win, which, if anything else, showed that feminism still has a long way to go.
So simple but so complicated
As a movement based on freedom and equality, you would think there would be no controversy or confusion surrounding it. The truth is, feminism can mean different things to people in different cultures, earning varying salaries or even with different experiences growing up.
Take, for example, Taylor Swift saying “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” in reference to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler making fun of her love life. The original quote was a political rallying cry from former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to encourage women to come together in what she calls, “a society where women often feel pressured to tear one another down.”
Feminism can take the form of “free the nipple” on Instagram, but to some that may look superficial next to, for example, women in Saudi Arabia, who are still not allowed to drive. Some women don’t want to be labelled feminists because they think we don’t need it anymore. They say things like “Well, I don’t feel like I’ve been oppressed growing up, so feminism isn’t for me” or “I know female leaders who are as good as men so we don’t need feminism anymore.”
But this isn’t quite the whole picture. “Generally speaking, the current feminist movement is not so much a protest against unjust laws or sexist institutions as much as it is the protest against people’s unconscious biases as well as centuries’ worth of cultural norms that disadvantage women,” says Uma Thana Balasingam, co-founder of Lean In Singapore, the local chapter of the feminist movement started by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “Before, it was an open and accepted part of society, but today, much of it is unconscious. It’s tricky because you’re no longer dealing with institutions – you’re dealing with people’s perceptions. You have to confront belief systems and assumptions and force people to unlearn things they’ve ‘known’ for decades. It’s a really, really hard thing to face.”
It’s tricky because you’re no longer dealing with institutions – you’re dealing with people’s perceptions.”
A (summarised) world history of feminism
From suffragettes to starlets, here’s a timeline of what’s gone down (or up) in the ﬁght for equal rights.
Fighting for our rights
The stats don’t lie. Earlier this year, a study from the NUS Business School’s Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations showed that female directors of SGX-listed companies earned 56.8 percent of what their male counterparts made. Women in Singapore also drop out of the workforce earlier. This could largely be because of what a 2015 study by Market Research company YouGov found, which was that a higher percentage of women and men in Singapore agree that a women’s place is in the home (22 percent of women and 28 percent of men). To put that in perspective, the global average is 12 percent for women and 18 percent for men.
Progress can also be hard when you have so few female role models to look up to, or mentors to go to for guidance.
The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) said that Singapore’s female participation in the work force and gender pay gap still ranks poorly on a global scale. For example, caregiving responsibilities still fall primarily on women who do a “double shift” of paid work followed by unpaid care. Corinna Lim, Executive Director of AWARE, says, “According to the Ministry of Manpower, over 270,000 women are out of the labour force due to ‘family responsibilities’, compared to 12,000 men. This has long-term consequences for their well-being, including a poor financial situation on retirement if they have little CPF or savings.”
<b>Emma Watson</b> “I feel like young girls are told that they have to be this kind of princess and be all delicate and fragile, and it’s bullsh*t. I identiﬁed much more with the idea of being a warrior, and being a ﬁghter...”
<b>Zendaya </b> “A feminist is a person who believes in the power of women just as much as they believe in the power of anyone else. It’s equality, it’s fairness, and I think it’s a great thing to be a part of.”,
<b>Barack Obama</b> “Michelle and I have raised our daughters to speak up when they see a double standard or feel unfairly judged based on their gender or race – or when they notice that happening to someone else.”
Singaporean women in the workplace
“While there has certainly been more awareness in male-dominated industries on gender diversity, we still have a long way to go. Female under-representation begins in schools,” says Uma.
At NTU, female undergraduates make up only 27 percent of the 2015/2016 computer science programme, despite accounting for half of all undergraduates across the institution. The gender imbalance in quickly growing industries like tech could mean women risk missing out on career opportunities in an economy in which tech is increasingly important. “Gender imbalance highlights societal issues, as girls have traditionally had less access and exposure to tech. Lack of female role models in tech is also a key reason that influences young girls’ [career choices].”
And then there is gender bias in the workplace. Women in leadership roles in traditionally male-dominated areas like science and technology have spoken about being mistaken for secretaries or asked to make coffee while their male colleagues look on. A common tactic to make people aware of their gender bias is to call them out on it. But as Marine Biologist Dr Siti Maryam says, “When women do, it is sometimes rationalised as women being ‘too sensitive’, and this discourages women from speaking up more.” Adds Uma, “We need to focus on creating a level playing field by educating women to be more aware of these unconscious biases and equipping them with tools to navigate gender biases in the workplace.”
The future is female, wherever you are
Even if you work in a female-dominated industry, there’s no way to avoid this oncoming new wave of feminism and that’s a good thing. If anything, it’ll just make you more aware of the challenges facing women all around the world. “Too many people assume that because Singapore is affluent, sexism is a thing of the past. But this is not true,” says Corinna. “Gender inequality shapes our laws, policies and social attitudes as well. An AWARE survey found that 57 percent of respondents believed that men are the ‘head of the household’ and should make most of the decisions in the family.
We need to examine how our own beliefs about gender has impacted how people are treated, penalised and privileged, and how we can progress as a society that is compassionate, inclusive and allows equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of gender.”
When it comes to roles in the workplace, being aware of our own unconscious bias will help the push for equality. “‘Traditional values’ still linger in most households and workplaces in Singapore, causing a disparity in the gender division of labour,” says Uma. “The values taught to young ladies were gracefulness, compassion, graciousness and gratitude. We were constantly reminded of our future responsibilities for the household and obligations towards our future husbands. In order to continue its fabulous growth, Singapore needs to turn its eyes to the needs of women and empower them within the workforce, through protection by accommodative policies and business practices.”
Ultimately, while feminism has had a long and tricky history, the fact that it’s buzzing now simply means more people – women and men – have noticed the disparities between the two sexes and are doing something about it. And to those who still don’t see why it’s relevant, perhaps it’s best explained by Jennifer Lawrence, when she wrote: “I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable! I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a man in charge who spent time contemplating what angle he should use to have his voice heard. It’s just heard.”
Today’s movie heroines are a little more well-rounded, a little more aspirational and have a lot more depth beyond their boob size and fashion.
<b>Wonder Woman</b> Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman shows that a woman can be multi-faceted. She is both emotional and a real bad-ass. And she’s a box office success.
<b>Belle (Beauty and the Beast)</b> Disney’s original animated version was pretty book-smart to begin with, but with Emma Watson taking the lead in the live-action version, we all got a modern-day feminist princess to aspire to be.
<b>Jyn Erso (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)</b> Not only does Felicity Jones’ character mastermind the plan to steal the Death Star plans, she also carries the movie with just as much aplomb as any male lead would.
Too many people assume that because Singapore is affluent, sexism is a thing of the past. But this is not true.”
Uniquely Singaporean problems facing local women
-In Singapore, it’s more likely that single parents will be women. “Housing is a major challenge for unwed mothers as they can only purchase HDB ﬂats at age 35, and are only eligible for subsidies on two-room ﬂats in nonmature estates, which may not be suitable for their family’s needs,” says Corinna from AWARE.
-“Divorced parents are barred from renting from HDB for 30 months after selling the matrimonial ﬂat, limiting their rental options to open market ﬂats. When they can rent directly from HDB, they struggle to provide for their families while remaining under the $1,500 income ceiling,” she adds.
-Unmarried parents and their children are still treated unequally in areas like the Baby Bonus cash gift, tax reliefs and inheritance law.
JOIN THE CAUSE
Looking to learn or mentor? Here are a few empowering and socially-active groups that are great places to start.
1 Lean In Singapore
This is a network of women in Singapore designed to encourage professional women to “lean in” in a supportive journey to reaching professional and personal goals. www.facebook.com/pg/LeaninSingapore
2 Female Founders
This non-proﬁt research and advocacy organisation is dedicated to promoting equality for women in technology. www.femalefounders.com
3 CRIB Society
Their mission is to empower women to obtain self-fulﬁllment and ﬁnancial independence, build strong families, and beneﬁt the economy and society at large by helping them to start sustainable, socially-minded businesses. www.crib.com.sg
Images 123RF.com, Showbit.com, TPG/Click Photos Text Karen Fong.