By Lee Sze Yeng, Deputy managing partner, KPMG in Singapore

Singapore can lead the way on gender equity in a digital economy

Singapore is gearing up for a new era, with investments made in its 2023 Budget to support businesses and equip workers with the skills necessary to thrive in the digital economy. As skills gaps open up, the country must optimise its human capital to stay competitive.

A key part of this strategy lies in tapping Singapore's talented women, with the International Women's Day on 8 March being a timely reminder. Empowering women to thrive in emerging fields can boost the talent pool and create better business outcomes, while helping them leapfrog equality challenges.

But the equal participation of women in “hot” sectors will not happen unless the playing field is levelled. Women tend to be in the minority in the digital labour market, and remain underrepresented in fields such as IT, computing, physics, mathematics and engineering. This presents a challenge in getting them involved – but also a huge opportunity, in the form of a relatively untapped talent pool.

As in most countries, the overall economic participation of women lags behind that of men in Singapore. According to 2022 statistics from the Manpower Ministry, the country’s employment rate for males aged over 15 was 74.4 percent, compared to 60.9 percent for females.

That’s a whole lot of talent that should not go to waste, especially since more than 90.2 percent of women aged between 25 to 34 had post-secondary education qualifications or higher in 2020, according to Singapore’s most recent census.

There appear to be plenty of women who are willing to take up new roles. In 2022, almost six in 10 unemployed Singapore residents looking for jobs were women. Many were in their 40s or older, had taken career breaks to care for their families, and were keen to get back to work. Helping women balance careers and child-rearing, and easing their return to the workforce after time off, can help reduce gender inequality.

In Budget 2023, the government recognised the need to spur economic growth and innovation while fostering family life. New measures included enhanced financial support for working mothers, extended parental leave and an obligation for companies to consider requests for flexible working arrangements.

These moves may help women to balance work and home commitments and participate more fully in the economy. Hybrid working models also provide more flexibility for allow women and men to fulfil caregiving duties.

As well as reducing labour shortages, greater participation by women makes for more diverse teams. This richness of perspectives and competencies helps to drive creativity, innovation and ultimately better business outcomes. 

Enabling everyone to thrive

The good news is that women have shown strong interest in closing the digital skills gap and are enrolling in professional certification courses at higher rates than before. Targeted reskilling and upskilling programmes can be facilitated by the government to ensure no one gets left behind – not only in technology, but also other emerging sectors such as sustainability and the green transition.

To ensure the best talent progresses through the career pipeline from intern to chief executive officer, companies must move beyond gender equality to address equity. This means recognising that different groups of women – and men – may require different considerations, to make the most of untapped human resources.

Beyond gender, awareness of intersecting issues such as age, ethnicity, disability and socioeconomic background can help ensure that we get the best from all of our people.

Technology itself can also be used as an equalising tool. For example, recruitment software that enables “blind” CV screenings – where information such as age, gender or college are not shown – can cut through unconscious bias. Advanced mechanisation is also reducing the physical demands of many blue-collar jobs, expanding women’s potential to participate in such skilled roles.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day – Digit ALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality – is a perfect opportunity to engage more deeply on such issues. As new developments disrupt the way we work, let’s take the chance to take a more equitable approach to human capital. 


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