Asian Economy

Traditional roles stifle Asia's working women
By Kalinga Seneviratne

SINGAPORE - Working women in Asia now have more rights and choices at home and in the workplace, but they also suffer increasing stress because they still have to function in a traditional setting, experts say.

Ever since a woman's right to a career and an independent lifestyle has been recognized, women have climbed up the corporate ladder, held top government positions, and excelled in their chosen professions.

These advancements, however, are not without a downside, says psychologist Teresa Foong of Singapore's Institute of Mental Health, who conducted a stress-management seminar for women at the three-day Women's Expo and Business Forum here that ended on Sunday.

Foong said modern women in Asia are facing increasing stress today because of higher expectations and that they often have to function in a traditional setting. "In the Asian context, one of the reasons for stress [among professional women] is to be seen to be credible, being responsible and being actually able to perform the job," she said.

"In Asia, families are important and trying to balance family and work could be very stressful," she added.

Former Singapore senior minister of state for education Dr Aline Wong told the forum that the burning issue is how women can strike a good balance between work and family life, and how employers and communities can help to achieve it.

She cited figures from a United Nations report, "World's Women 2000", which shows that the ratio of women among administrative and managerial workers in Southeast Asia has risen by 11 percentage points in the last decade, the same increase as in Western Europe. The ratio of women in technical jobs as well as in business enterprises also increased significantly in Asia during the period, which is also the case in Western Europe, she said.

Women in Asia have worked hard and achieved much, said the organizers of the first-ever Women Inspire Expo and Business Forum here last week, where business and professional women from across Asia gathered for three days to discuss common concerns.

"We want women in business and professions to come together to share experiences and also to foster closer relationships. Hopefully that will develop into business alliances and relationships," said Josephine Schlittler-Chong, founder of Women Inspire and managing director of Singaswiss Events Services.

To recognize female achievers in Asia, the group launched the Women Inspire Awards in five categories: arts, business, community services, information technology (IT) and sports. Among the inaugural winners were South Korean golfing star Pak Se Ri; the principal of Thailand's Chiang Mai Ballet Academy, Preeyapun Sridhavat; and the director of a pioneering Indonesian IT company, Shanti Poesposoetjlpto.

"In the past it has been a male-dominated [business] world. Even today there is gender discrimination," said Dr Jannie Tay, co-organizer of Women Inspire and managing director of Malaysian watch retailer The Hour Glass. "We are here to encourage more women to participate in the economy, be financially independent and give them some choices."

Tay said overcoming gender discrimination is not easy, but added that "because men are achievers, if the women also get up there, compete and become successful, men will ultimately respect them".

As Asian economies grow and more women become successful business executives, dilemmas and choices are increasingly going to be debated, perhaps with no clear solution.

"Nowadays for a woman, career is priority and family secondary, because she needs to have a good standard of living and has high expectations," said Yvonne Khong, of the Singapore Business and Professional Women's Association.

Just as priorities are changing, the definition of work should also be seen in a new context, said artist Ketna Patel, who had her own stall at the expo.

"Career doesn't necessarily mean a woman wearing shoulder pads and sitting at a board meeting. Career shouldn't mean that," she said, adding that if women can create enterprises where they could work from home, then they will not have to make the choice between children and a job. "We may have jobs where you can work from home and have clients come to you. Women need to start redefining what it means to work."

Jannie Tay added: "With new technology, government support [in providing affordable child care], and understanding and educated husbands, there is no reason why we should be the only ones to stay at home."

(Inter Press Service)
Dec 4, 2002


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