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Post date: Mar 12, 2013 2:2:52 AM

The Rise of the Singaporean Superwoman


12 March 2013

On International Women’s Day (IWD) on Friday, Alex Westcott meets a woman who exemplifies the ‘superwoman’ persona. With prevailing issues such as a rising costs of living, the country’s declining birth rate and a general predisposition for young people to put finance and career well ahead of marriage and children, TODAY questions what definitions of contemporary femininity mean for the modern Singaporean woman.

Following the recent survey conducted with approximately 400 undergraduates between 19 and 25 from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore Management University and SIM University and the National University of Singapore (NUS) where students were asked to list their life priorities, it was revealed that while money, career, grades and socialising occupied the upper echelon of priorities, finding a life partner fell to number six.

With the government’s mission to offer better incentives to encourage the new generation of young Singaporean adults to get married and have children, this survey is a significant indicator as to how young Singaporeans measure what is important to them and what will define their futures. In a country with a declining birth rate, the results provoke existing concerns.

However one must also ask: is offering a plethora of baby benefits enough to motivate young people, and women in particular, to rush headfirst into marriage and start a family when matters relating to financial security dominate young people’s concerns?

Last week Friday the world celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) – championing modern femininity and all that women around the world have achieved in the past, campaigning the achievements of the modern mother and career woman – the term coined (internationally) as the modern ‘superwoman.’

In 2013 - the 60th anniversary year of Betty Friedman’s first publication of The Feminine Mystique - it gives us pause to consider how things have changed in the past six decades, and what the implications of the ‘superwoman mystique’ are - globally, and in Singapore. Having just celebrated IWD, examining contemporary femininity in the Singaporean context and what this means for the modern Singaporean women is important for moving forward. Is pushing marriage and babies as a primary concern instead of an equal concern - by implication relegating career aspirations to further down the list - a means of solving the problem?

Or perhaps – is encouraging holistic living for the modern woman a smarter means of addressing the declining birth rate?

Many companies seem to think so, and corporates are increasingly offering women backing in the form of empowerment conferences, support groups for working mothers and other such initiatives. Citibank is one such example . To mark IWD, the organisation held numerous empowerment events as well as fundraisers for charities globally; in Singapore last week, a panel of four women shared their insights and perspectives on gender diversity in the workplace, and ways to change and create more opportunities for women. Mr Michael Zink, Head of ASEAN and Citi Country Officer for Singapore commented: “Today, despite the considerable efforts that companies have made to address gender imbalance in the workplace, women remain underrepresented on corporate boards and executive committees. While we have made progress, I believe more work can be done to promote gender diversity in the workplace. ”

Following the student survey published last week, it is apparent that the likelihood of young women dropping everything after years of studying in a tough education system to ‘make it’ in their careers and instead opt for a quiet home-based existence raising children in isolation, is minimal. And why should they? In promoting a strong economy with one of the best education systems in the world, it is only natural that Singaporean women should want the same privileges as men and the same right to financial independence and professional recognition (without digressing into issues of male chauvinism).

That said: is giving up a family and the joy of children in the winter of one’s life enough to justify a high-flying career and flush bank balance in one’s youth – for both men and women? These are individual questions which will have individual-specific answers; they cannot be applied across the board as a collective consciousness. It is important to allow every young woman – and man – to realise their own life aspirations, whether in family or business or both.

There is a stratum of Singaporean women who embody the concept of the modern superwoman – balancing family, fitness and career. I met one such woman on IWD: Ooi Huey Tyng, Country Manager for Singapore and Brunei for Visa, wife for 20 years and mother of two. Spending the day in her shadow on this iconic day celebrating women’s achievements, here is a preview of how she manages her time between her commitments to her high pressure career and her husband of 20 years and two children, son Sim Wei Shi and daughter, Sim Wei Xin. Ms Ooi Huey’s life is but one perspective, but it is one that points to the fact that – to quote her directly – “it is possible to have your cake – and eat it.”

Tell me about your career.

I started with Proctor and Gamble – my first job – as a financial analyst. My aspiration at that early stage of my career was to be a CFO. But mid-career I realised that while I enjoy numeric analytical work, I also enjoy business development and frontline business. I was with a dot com company for three years, but as you can see that really didn’t go anywhere for me! I didn’t make my multi million dollars! But by chance during a networking event I met a country manager of Citi Bank. We had some business dealings and he said that if I ever had any interest in venturing into the banking industry that I should give him a call. I didn’t really think about it at the time. It was around that time that I took a break for about four months as I was feeling burnt out. Once I was ready to get back to work, I decided to call him and that launched my career in banking. I started at Citi Bank, then I moved to UOB and DBS. I started at Visa last year.

How did you and your husband meet?

I met my husband while we were at university while I was doing my MBA. It was not love at first sight. But I will say that there was instant connection and a meeting of like minds. After our first few conversations I knew that he was the right guy for me. The thing that really impressed me about him was the fact that he had – and has – no conventional expectations of what a woman or a wife should do or be. He’s very open and that really attracted me. I knew that he would treat me like and equal partner. We’ve been married for 20 years.

To give you an example of our relationship: if go to parent-teacher meetings and you will mostly see mothers; there are not many fathers present. But we both travel and work hard. Sometimes I am not available so he’ll go. And often as not he’s the only father there. But he doesn’t think that I should be the only one juggling career and family. He pulls his weight.

At what point did you decide to start a family?

Having kids was not an easy decision. My husband wanted to kids but I sat on the fence on that decision for a while, There’s never a good time to start a family. It’s very easy to make excuses; you’ll have a promotion coming up or you’ll be travelling a lot – I was travelling 50 per cent of the time. So whenever we broached the subject of starting a family, I was always quite concerned about how it would impact my career development and progression. But after years of procrastination we finally sat down and realised that it was now or never and we made the decision to have kids.

I am an optimistic person – I feel that I can have my cake and eat it too! But you do realise that to have it all you will have some sacrifices along the way. Even after I had my son I was still travelling a tremendous amount with work. I remember coming back from a trip and arriving home and he was being carried by the helper and didn’t want to be carried by me. Did it break my heart? Maybe a little bit. But he knows who his mother is; I just had to give him some time.

You need to find your own balance and be happy with that. ‘Having it all’ is a state of mind. It’s subjective, based on your own personal choices and ambitions. I have it all in terms of what I could have ever hoped for or wanted for myself. I perhaps don’t spend as much time with my kids as I would like, but we make the time wherever we can. They are independent, and that’s important.

What’s your message to Singaporean women this IWD?

Every woman wants her own space. For many young Singaporean women, finding that space is by way of a career; the modern woman doesn’t want to have the family ‘define them’ exclusively, as that’s an archaic notion of who women are and what they can offer. It comes back to finding your balance. You can’t pigeon-hole women into having children at a specific age. It’s about meeting the right person first and foremost and the rest will follow. I also think it’s important to work for a progressive company. Citing Visa as an example, in Southeast Asia about 50 per cent of the country managers are women, which is encouraging. I think that if you work for a progressive company that allows you flexibility, support and understanding – while giving you equal opportunities – it allows you to find that balance. It is very individual. I would say, having done all of that, that I am a happier person having a family. There have been sacrifices along the way – for example, I gave up a post overseas - but having gone through all that, I feel that life has a lot more meaning having someone to share your life and successes with. There’s tremendous joy in passing on your knowledge to your children and leaving a legacy. At the end of the day, it’s important to not be ‘one-sided’, I think.

Is there anything you would change in terms of the decisions you’ve made?

No. I am someone who doesn’t like to look back. I was conscious of the path I was taking in accordance with the decisions I have made.

How has the corporate landscape changed for women in Singapore? What has improved in the past 20 years in your experience, and what can still be done to better it?

It is industry specific. I do recall some years ago working in a male-dominated office, and I arrived – new – for a board meeting. The first thing a colleague said to me was: ‘Can you make coffee?’ The only woman they’d ever seen in the boardroom up until that point had been the female secretary. I think those attitudes have changed, but sometimes these old stereotypes rear their heads. I counteract that sort of thing by speaking up, being confident and asserting myself. Be an equal by asserting yourself as an equal… because you are!

Do you feel women’s empowerment conferences, support groups and the like are important in corporate culture? Or are they exclusionist in a world where women still fight to be recognised on the same platform and by the same terms as men?

I think these programmes are useful, because at the end of the day stereotypes don’t operate within a vacuum. Many women share many of the same challenges. It is important to share perspectives with women who have had a similar journey as a means of identifying related issues. I think we should make more of an effort to inspire and offer support to younger women. I don’t feel that there’s enough of that.

Policies for diversity and inclusion are of course important. But the results speak for themselves, really: look at the increasing number of women in positions of leadership across the board. You need leaders to give these forums and conferences substance.

Do you think women in corporate environments need to ‘act like a man’ and take on stereotypically masculine personality traits to survive and progress in male-dominated industries?

I used to think that but not anymore. I don’t think this women to need to ‘act like men’ if men pull their own weight and respect women for who they are and acknowledge the expertise that they bring to the table. Back to the family environment - why should women be the only ones juggling everything? It’s an equal partnership. If men share the same responsibilities as their spouses at home, it will result in the same attitudes of mutuality being perpetuated in the working environment. It’s not only a case of changing company attitudes to women, but also changing men’s attitudes in general. In the same vein – men shouldn’t be pressured to be the primary breadwinner; they are equally free to place paternal priorities first, if they so choose and they can reach an agreement with their spouse. We’ve come a long way, but we still have further to go.

How do you manage to juggle your career, family and health?

You need energy, discipline and focus. You need to take care of your health. Make sure you’re always ‘up’ in terms of your physical and mental energy. And – find the right partner for you. Your partner’s support is invaluable. You can’t do it all on your own. I would also say to working mothers: take advantage of the technology that’s available. When I travel, I communicate with my children through Whatsapp, Skype, Facebook and so on. We have family forums so that we stay connected. And then: maximize your quality time together. Stay abreast with what interests them and communicate directly in the time that you have on those topics. It keeps your connection strong.