Singapore’s PR industry is still failing working mums

From discriminatory interviews to the the awkwardness of leaving the office early, working mums in Singapore are still not properly supported by their companies – argues Spectrum Group’s Cheryl Tan

A few months ago I came across an informal LinkedIn poll asking about the most ridiculous questions people had ever been asked in a job interview.  A memory immediately jumped to mind: “Do you think you’ll be able to fully commit to this job, given your role as a new mother?”

This incident happened years ago. I had just returned to the workforce after taking a short sabbatical to have children, and so I replied with everything and anything that I believed the interviewer wanted to hear.

I left the interview and didn’t think much of it until a few years later, when a hiring manager of another firm rang me to say that my interview had gone well and I ticked all the boxes. They just weren’t sure about my ability to juggle work and family. They then proceeded to ask me to address the ’issue’ in writing.

Still, I rationalised it and went along with her request. I assumed that the industry I was in, public relations, had long hours and personal trade-offs were par for the course. I should be grateful to have a job at all, right?  

It wasn’t until much later, when I had grown more confident in my ability to make things work as a full-time working mum, that I began to realise the ridiculousness of it all.

The bad news

Discrimination against mothers in the workplace is a well-documented issue, and while statistics from the Ministry of Manpower show that the number of pregnant women lodging unfair dismissal cases has seen a significant drop in recent years, expectant mothers and human resource  experts who recently spoke to the Today newspaper here in Singapore insist that those numbers tell only half the story.

As if the guilt of missing family time wasn’t enough, women said they were put through additional scrutiny with questions like how soon they intended to get pregnant again and what type of childcare arrangements they had.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard stories of women in the PR industry being asked to downplay their baby bump ahead of new business pitches and many complain of a general lack of support for nursing mums. Plus then there’s the awkwardness of leaving the office to collect a sick child whilst everybody else is pulling overtime.

These issues are certainly not unique the PR industry, and there is an endless list of articles that highlight the extent of the problem. However, it was not until the recent death of young mother Koh Suan Ping and her two-month-old daughter that light was really shed on the everyday struggles of working mums in Singapore.

The good news

Luckily, it’s not all doom and gloom. There is lots of research to suggest that hiring ‘returning mothers’ is actually good for business. A 2015 study conducted by Regus showed that over a quarter of businesses polled globally were planning on hiring more working mothers compared to the year before.

Technology, when used responsibly, has also played a big part in making life easier for working parents by allowing them to stay connected outside of the office. During the years, I’ve become something of an expert at joining conference calls on-the-go and finishing important proposals after putting my children to sleep.  

There are also plenty of reasons why having kids can actually be great for your career, from better time-management skills to a change in perspective . At my current firm, 20 per cent of our employees have children, and the company takes a common-sense approach to workplace flexibility. Hiring decisions are always based on experience and merit, and never on family planning. If your employer doesn’t believe in your capability to do your job while being a parent, it might be time to rethink the position.

Koh Suan Ping’s tragic story made me realise the importance of opening up and having honest conversations about the challenges we face as working mums in the corporate world, regardless of industry. While there isn’t a one-size fits-all approach to finding work-life balance,  it is only through these conversations that we can truly make a positive difference to working parents everywhere in Singapore.

Looking back, if I had to revisit that interview all those years ago, my answer would now be different: “If I can push an entire human being out of my body and survive on no sleep, then nothing is impossible.”

Cheryl Tan is the Singapore country manager for communications firm Spectrum Group


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