The workplace should be the driving force of gender equality

The workplace should be the driving force of gender equality

This op-ed was originally published in The Business Times on 5 April 2022.

With a multi-pronged strategy carried out consistently, firms can work in tandem with both government and community to build a world that is inclusive and fair to all.

ARE Singapore’s workplaces doing enough to address gender inequality?

On Mar 28, the government unveiled its long-awaited White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development: a 25-point action plan, 18 months in the making. The first action on the list? Introduce new workplace fairness legislation – specifically, by enshrining the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices in law to ban discrimination on the basis of gender, age, ethnicity and other grounds.

This legislation, first raised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at last year’s National Day Rally, has been met with widespread approval. Yet while the law will surely make for a strong deterrent and signal to society that discrimination is unacceptable, the White Paper also points out that “legislation is not a panacea”. If so, what else will it take to bring the working world up to speed?

There has been, traditionally, a vein of scepticism regarding the effectiveness of championing gender equality in corporate spaces, governed as they often are by the capitalistic emphasis on profit and productivity over well-being and inclusion. Yet at AWARE’s training arm, Catalyse, we are truly optimistic about reimagining work for the better.

Many companies and business groups today are stepping up to champion gender equality and other forms of diversity and inclusion. Spurred in part by the pandemic, these companies know that today’s investors expect them to help make the world a better place. ESG (environment, social and governance) criteria and stakeholder capitalism are more than trendy buzzwords – investors want to see women and other minorities represented on boards and senior management teams.

More than that, companies are also cognisant that gender equity is a talent and leadership issue, and that they cannot afford not to attract, retain and promote female talent. Singapore’s female talent pool is under-utilised, considering that for more than 10 years, our female graduates have outnumbered male graduates. If women worked at the same rate as men, our workforce would boast at least 225,000 more workers – about 25 per cent more women than we have today. This war for talent has only been intensified by the Great Resignation of the past couple of years.

So how exactly can we reclaim our workplaces from the patriarchy’s clutches?

The problem with male-dominated industries

A question we get often at Catalyse is how women can break into male-dominated industries or companies.

We recently came across an industry where female representation in most key functions was below 5 per cent. The 2 major reasons for this, as cited by the workers, were that:

1) women lacked the aptitude to be creative leaders in that field, and

2) the demands of the work were simply not possible to balance with care responsibilities.

The first point is unscientific and largely unacceptable in many spaces. Yet perhaps it should not be surprising: After all, a recent survey by the Ministry of Manpower found that around 4 per cent of job applicants in Singapore face discrimination due to their pregnancy status. Another 7 per cent of female job applicants face discrimination on the basis of having children, while 4 per cent of all applicants face gender discrimination in general.

While these numbers are down from the survey’s previous edition in 2018, they point to a strain of unconscious biases that survives – and even thrives – in certain industries: that men are, for instance, better at problem-solving, or that women are more nurturing by nature and thus best suited for care work.

The second point, about work-care incompatibility, is probably true, and is also a function of bias – albeit a different, more structural sort of bias. These barriers to women are not so much expressed by individuals making individual decisions, but are baked into the very design of many workplaces. They take the form of work cultures that privilege the people who, for example, show up in person at the office (rather than virtually), and do not have to take leave at short notice or for extended periods of time, and have regular work hours that are not friendly to parents (for example, scheduling meetings for when school lets out). In this particular industry, for instance, it was common for people to work long 18-hour days (an extreme example, to be sure).

To the unquestioning, these work conventions may seem immutable. Yet they are just that – conventions – and based on implicit assumptions that penalise women, for example, “commitment to work should always trump commitment to family care”.

Worryingly, though, these are self-perpetuating systems. Women may feel uncomfortable and marginalised when their representation in a given space is less than the critical mass of 30 per cent. Such a space may indeed only attract the women who are willing and able to assimilate into patriarchal systems to thrive, for example, those who can refrain from showing much emotion in a bid to appear “tough”, or who lack (or give up) a desire to have children.

Some of these women may even deny the presence of gender bias or barriers, based on their own success. They may tell other women “if I can do it, so should everybody”, a perspective that fails to take into account the countless differences between people of the same gender. This makes it more difficult for women who do face obstacles to speak up for fear of seeming “weak”. So where should large-scale change come from?

Work can change, for women and men both

The White Paper proposes developing career mentorship, networking opportunities and training programmes for women at work – for example, focusing on women re-entering the workforce after an absence, for example, due to having children. These and other promising measures, such as the new Tripartite Guidelines on Flexible Work Arrangements, will hopefully usher in a new era for working mothers – one that isn’t characterised by stress, exhaustion and onerous mental load.

Of course, we have already seen companies embarking on similar initiatives: from the establishment of women’s sponsorship and leadership programmes, to Unconscious Bias training and the introduction of specialised roles such as Diversity and Wellness Officers. Cynics may write off these interventions as “virtue-signalling” wastes of time, but they do make an impact, according to many women we have spoken to.

Catalyse has also been engaged as an external consultant to conduct employee focus groups, obtaining honest feedback in order to identify a company’s gaps in inclusion. Even male-dominated companies have embarked on robust investigations to take stock of, for example, their gender pay gaps and the gender breakdowns in hiring, promotion and retention. With this information, they can put new internal policies, practices and goals in place. For instance, they may mandate that executive search firms present a slate with at least 30 per cent female candidates, if not 50; de-identify candidates’ identities at the stage of filtering CVs; and stick to structured interviews in which every candidate is asked the same questions.

And while the White Paper did not herald an increase in mandatory paternity leave entitlements, we are nonetheless encouraged by the growing trend of companies proactively including men in the fight for gender equality. Under the #DoubleUp pledge by the Swedish Chamber of Commerce, for example, 9 Swedish multinational companies in Singapore doubled their paid paternity leave benefits from the government-mandated 2 weeks to 4. We’re hoping that more companies step up and equalise parental leave for all genders – a surefire way to reduce the “motherhood penalty” suffered when working mums shoulder most of childcare, and improve working dads’ well-being, too.

These initiatives and others – for example, corporate male allyship programmes – may offer the buy-in that so often makes the difference between failure and success for gender equality efforts.

It’s about more than just work

It comes down to this: Corporate workplaces can, and therefore must, be a major driver of gender equality. Equality at the workplace has a ripple effect into other areas of life, from our relationships to our recreation, politics and culture. People who are better aware of biases, and how these biases result in microaggressions and discrimination, are more responsible – and probably more pleasant – people. Women empowered as leaders at work will also lead in other areas of life.

Gender inequality is a problem that calls for sustained effort, and we should be clear-eyed about what that will take: far more than we can achieve in one solitary Women’s month, or even one White Paper. But if a multi-pronged strategy is carried out consistently, companies can work in tandem with both government and community to build a world that is inclusive and fair to all.

Corinna Lim is executive director, AWARE, and Amy Amrita Daga, managing director and consulting principal, Catalyse


Why anti-harassment programmes are often ineffective

Why anti-harassment programmes are often ineffective

This op-ed was originally published in The Business Times on 5 February 2021.

Ask any company how it plans to combat workplace sexual harassment, and it will likely mention “anti-harassment training”. Sounds great in theory. But, in practice, are anti-harassment training programmes really effective? The short answer is: it depends. On their content, their delivery and a host of other factors.

AWARE’s training and consultancy arm, Catalyse (formerly known as AWARE Training Institute), has delivered anti-harassment training programmes to more than 300 companies since 2010. Our evidence-based and field-tested training programmes have enabled us to distil the key issues that companies should consider when carrying out such programmes. These training programmes are all the more important now that we have the results of the first-ever national survey, conducted by AWARE and Ipsos, on the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment in Singapore.


Anti-harassment programmes have a chequered history. Research shows that programmes are not effective in addressing workplace harassment when they are carried out for self-serving reasons, for example to protect the company from legal liability. Reducing the likelihood of workplace harassment has to be the primary objective; otherwise, the training programmes often end up devoid of any clear goals, follow-up and measurement criteria. This renders them ineffective.

On the other hand, training programmes do play a crucial role in tackling harassment when done properly. They are instrumental in increasing knowledge about sexual harassment.

The AWARE-Ipsos survey found a big gap in people’s understanding of what counts as sexual harassment: when asked if they had been sexually harassed at work, one in five said yes. However, when specific harassment scenarios were described to them, the number of respondents who said yes went up to two in five.

Training programmes help establish a baseline of basic knowledge about what constitutes sexual harassment. This is especially important for companies with employees from diverse backgrounds. Reaching in for a hug may be acceptable in some cultures, but not in others. Training programmes can help bridge this knowledge gap in acceptable workplace behaviour.

Research shows that employees who received training are more likely to recognise unwanted sexual gestures and touching as sexual harassment than those who have not received any training. Anti-harassment programmes also aim to provide information on company anti-harassment policies and who to approach to report harassment. These sections of the training are naturally only as robust as the policies in place.


Companies make three key errors when designing anti-harassment training programmes.

First, they rely too much on canned programmes. Many companies are content to offer training modules without customising them for the specifics of their organisation or industry. Of course the reporting structure may differ from company to company. A small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) may not have a human resources department, in which case complaints of sexual harassment may have to be filed with the chief executive or the SME’s board of advisers.

Often, these programmes also do not provide concrete, contextualised examples of behaviours that constitute harassment. Generic or abstract statements on harassment are unlikely to resonate with any employee.

Second, in a bid to increase interactivity, many anti-harassment training programmes rely on role-playing, that is using imaginary scenarios in which employees act out how they could react if they witness harassment, or hear about a colleague’s experience. Role-playing can often be a powerful exercise. Unfortunately, most of the time these scenarios tend to involve a male harasser and a female victim.

Although this perpetrator-victim combination is still the most prevalent, same-sex harassment and situations with female harassers and male victims also need to be included. Doing so would make the training inclusive and empower all employees, regardless of whether they fit the stereotype of a typical “victim”, to report cases of harassment.

Third, many companies also fail to see the link between the wider organisational culture and employee attitudes to training. If the organisational culture is generally perceived to be tolerant of workplace sexual harassment, employees are likely to be cynical about the content and intent of the training.

Other seemingly minor issues, such as using legal terms to describe people as “perpetrators” or “victims”, can also have an impact on whether the employees pay attention to the training or not. Individuals may reject the training wholesale because they do not feel like such labels apply to them.


Training is most effective when it is offered frequently, is instructor-led (whether in person or virtual), and includes a combination of different exercises (case studies and small group discussions) to retain the attention of employees. Offering anti-harassment training on a regular basis not only conveys a company’s seriousness about tackling workplace sexual harassment, it also allows for time to go over the nuances or grey areas of what can be, after all, pretty complex.

In situations when in-person training is not possible, companies could offer blended training instead. This combines in-person and online training, and can be made interactive with the help of an experienced training developer and facilitator.

While all employees should receive training, there should be separate programmes for managers and non-managers. Managers, including the senior leadership team, need to be informed of their additional responsibilities, such as how to respond in the moment when someone reports harassment to them.

Furthermore, managers should be trained to proactively respond to harassment situations even without a complaint. This is absolutely crucial – managers might be seen as condoning unacceptable workplace behaviours if they do not intervene in situations unfolding before them.

In both workplace and campus settings, there is a growing recognition of the role bystanders can play in stopping harassment. We therefore also recommend that anti-harassment training programmes incorporate bystander training. Bystanders are often aware of harassment before managers. Yet they may not be incentivised to report, or (as witnesses, not targets, of the harassment) may not know how to report. They can also be trained to intervene in harassment situations without causing further harm to themselves or victims.

If a company’s ultimate goal is to reduce the likelihood of workplace sexual harassment, it should remember that training is only one part of a suite of measures to adopt. At the end of the day, it will take a multi-pronged effort to stamp out workplace harassment, including creating office cultures that promote respect and inclusion.

Caroline Callow, Senior Facilitator, Catalyse

What should I do if my boss is bullying me?

What should I do if my boss is bullying me?

Bullying by a manager broadly comes in two forms:

  1. Direct sexual or non-sexual harassment – this is the kind of behaviour that can make you uncomfortable or fearful because it is aggressive or inappropriate.
  2. Abuse of managerial power – this involves making unreasonable requests, setting impossible deadlines, withholding resources and opportunities and generally making work life extremely stressful.

Direct harassment tends to be easier to identify and label as inappropriate. Rudeness, shouting, getting physical: these are all aggressive behaviours that are clearly inappropriate in the workplace.

Abuse of managerial power can be much harder to pin down. When is a boss being “demanding but fair” vs “unreasonable”? We reward leaders that push their teams to high performance so how can you know when it crosses a line?

Tough boss or bully?

There are a few questions you can ask to get a feel for whether a team leader is engaged in bullying or is just setting demanding but reasonable targets:

    1. Is everyone in the team subject to the same standards and workload or are some people being treated worse than others? If some are being single out for poor treatment, this is more likely to be bullying.
    2. Is feedback given with respect or is it insulting? Does the manager use insults and put-downs to “encourage” performance? Insults are not reasonable managerial behaviour.
    3. Is it reasonable to assume the workload is achievable or are the demands clearly impossible to fulfill and setting up employees for failure?
    4. Are deadlines set because of genuine business needs or are they arbitrary? Do deadlines make sense or seem to be set to simply torment the victim?
    5. Where are the demands coming from?  In some cases, there may be a resource issue beyond the control of the team leader. If the stress is coming from higher up in the organisation, this does not mean there isn’t a management problem, but it may not rest with the manager tasked with ensuring targets are met.

Should I report?

How you choose to handle the situation depends on a few factors:

  • Are you unsure you are being bullied? If you are feeling afraid and stressed out, you are probably a victim and there is power in just being able to recognise the behaviour as harassment. But if you are not sure, get some clarity on this first, as per the questions in the previous section.
  • Do you have evidence to corroborate your experience? As explained above, it may require more evidence to document abuse of managerial power compared to direct bullying. Documentation of your experience and/or witness support is helpful.
  • Does your organisation have clear policies and procedures for handling reports of harassment? You should be familiar with how to make a formal report and what you can expect to happen when you do.
  • Does your organisation have the ability to protect you from retaliation if you make a complaint? Most policies on harassment also emphasise that retaliation is not permitted. However in practice, it may not always be easy to provide this protection. Transfers, while helpful, may not always be possible particularly in a small organisation. Some firms are willing to offer one of the parties (typically the victim) to work from home or take paid leave while the matter is being investigated.
  • Does your organisation have a good track record for supporting victims of harassment? While an organisation may have good policies and procedures, employees will not have faith in those measures if there have been cases where either victims or the accused are believed to have been treated unfairly.
  • Is everyone in the organisation accountable for their behavior or is the bully “untouchable”? The unfortunate reality of some organisations is that they permit certain employees to behave badly without consequences – for example star performers, or friends and relatives of powerful decision makers. Some people behave badly because they know they can get away with it.
  • Has the bully already poisoned the organisation against you? In extreme cases, by the time you understand that you are a victim of bullying, your manager may have already convinced senior management and/or HR that you are unreliable or a poor performer. This makes reporting – and being believed – a lot harder.
  • Is there an effective mechanism to report bullying anonymously and safely if you do not feel safe to lodge a complaint through the regular process? Some organisations offer a whistleblowing option for anonymous reporting. Anonymous reports make it hard for firms to take action because they are unable to investigate fully. But this option might be the only one a victim is comfortable with.
How to document harassment

Send an email to yourself with details of the incident. Because an email is time-stamped, it shows the record was made close to the time of the incident when your memory was still fresh. It provides a “contemporaneous” record of the incident.

  1. Provide as many details as possible: time, date, who was there, what was said, witnesses, etc.
  2. Say how it made you feel.
  3. Keep it as factual and professional as possible: consider that this note may be used as evidence one day. Avoid seeming unreasonable, biased, or rude.


So what can I do?

You have a number of options and strategies you can consider:

  1. Document – this means take notes every time you experience or witness harassment. Do this Every. Single. Time. Even if you ultimately choose not to proceed with a formal report, these notes give you options and help document patterns of behaviour. See the insert on how to take good notes.
  2. Talk to somebody – find a friend, ally, or confident to help you talk through your feelings and uncertainties. It is normal to feel unsure of how to proceed and talking about it with someone you trust will help you figure out how you want to proceed.
  3. Seek assistance/intervention – is it possible there is someone who can speak to the bully and get the behaviour to stop without the need to lodge a formal complaint? Sometimes an informal approach can help mend a situation and maintain a good relationship. The right person may be a peer of your boss who you trust and think could help. Sometimes it could be someone in HR. This option is particularly useful if you think the bully might be open to changing.
  4. Lodge a formal report – file a complaint under your organisation’s harassment policy
  5. Seek legal advice and representation – if you are not satisfied with your organisation’s response, you might consider seeking legal advice. This could be to pursue legal remedies against the perpetrator or the firm.
  6. Go to the police – Sexual Harassment is against the law in most countries. Protection against non-sexual harassment tends to vary more depending on where you live.
  7. Resign – In some cases, you may feel the best thing you can do is move on with your life. Not everyone wants to go through the stress of pursuing a formal complaint. Likewise you may not be willing to continue to put up with regular harassment. Leaving is sometimes the healthiest choice. Prolonged exposure to harassment can lead to both physical and mental health issues. Take care of yourself.
  8. Get advice and counselling – Call a helpline, see a counsellor, get help. Harassment is stressful. Talk to someone about it. What you have been through is traumatic and grossly unfair. You need to heal and put this behind you. This can be hard and you don’t have to do it on your own. Get help. The trauma can bubble up months or even years later if you suppress your feelings about what happened. Please do not underestimate how important this step is.


Get Help
For advice on workplace harassment:
Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory
6950 9191
Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

For advice on all forms of gender based harassment:
AWARE Women’s Helpline
1800 777 5555,
Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Communication in the Virtual Workplace

Communication in the Virtual Workplace

Case Study

On the team’s group chat, someone shared a photo of a model.

“OK guys this is not the place.”
“Lighten up, Grace.”

The team leader only saw it a few hours later after the chat had died down. She ignored it. No biggie.Then it became a thing.

Every now and again, one of the guys would post a photo of a model. There would be some appreciation…  and like clockwork Grace would say it was not cool. Soon the jokes were about Grace’s predictable reaction.

One day, Grace spoke to the team leader and said she was disappointed nothing had been done about the situation.

“The guys are just blowing off some steam. It’s no big deal. Boys will be boys. You shared a cat video recently. Same thing.”

Virtual Spaces are Workspaces

Because we spend so much of our personal lives in virtual spaces like chat rooms and social media, it can be easy to bring the same casual attitudes to virtual workspaces.

Behaviour that would be considered unprofessional in our physical office space often happen in our “online offices” because of the habits we have developed when using chat with friends. Slang, shorthand, grammer, memes… there is a culture to personal chat spaces that regularly shows up when we work online.

But such chatter isn’t always appropriate.

So where do I draw the line?

The question to ask is: should anyone have to see or participate in such exchanges as part of their job?

Sure some people like it. But does everyone? Is it making some people uncomfortable?

Is the image or joke at the expense of some group or individual? Does it objectify people or assume some kind of stereotype or bias? Is it inclusive for everyone or could it be divisive? Could it be insensitive, insulting, or offensive to someone with different values or background?

The easiest way to manage such situations is to set clear guidelines on professional behaviour and make sure everyone understands that virtual workspaces are still part of the workplace.

How do I know if a virtual space is part of the workplace?

For some organisations this is easy because digital communication is restricted to internal platforms.

However it is not always clearcut. If it’s not clear, ask these questions:

  1. Why was the space set up? Was it to facilitate communication for something related to work?
  2. Who is in the group? Is it mostly colleagues?
  3. What is the cost of leaving the group? Will leaving be damaging to working relationships? Will leaving mean a person risks missing important info? Will leaving impact networking, bonding and hence career opportunities?

If you answer “Yes” to any of these questions, the virtual space may be considered the workplace.

Factors that do not matter:

  1. Whether or not the device used is paid for by the organisation.
  2. Whether or not someone is using a personal or work account to participate in the space.

So, for instance, the argument “This is my phone and my whatsapp account so I can say what I want” is not a valid reason to act unprofessionally in a whatsapp chat group with colleagues.

Likewise, say a chat was set up for a particular project and after the project was over, everyone stayed in and it became a social forum, it is *still* the workplace.

Humour is a good way for people to bond. Isn’t this an overreaction? Political correctness kills all fun!

Humour absolutely is a great way to connect and reduce stress. But if the humour is at someone’s expense, then you have to ask who is bonding and who is being left out?

In the story above, the example given was one that, in some companies, would be considered sexual harassment. But sexual content is not the only kind of communication that crosses the line. Jokes and comments can also be disrespectful or exclude. If a comment touches on gender, race, body type, sexuality, religion, disability… or any other form of identity, there is a danger that it may be hurtful.

As a manager, WHEN should I draw the line?


Communication in virtual spaces is fast. If someone says or shares something that is inappropriate, the team leader needs to call it out right away in order to signal to everyone on the chat what the standards are. Team members should also feel empowered to call out inappropriate behaviour.

Saying that, it is important to do so in a way that maintains respect for everyone, even the offending poster. The whole point is to ensure the space is one that is respectful.

“Hey all: a gentle reminder that this kind of [comment/post] is *not* acceptable.”

“I know this is meant as a joke but it is a misuse of this chat. Please don’t put me in the position of having to come down on you for not following policy on this.”

“This post is not appropriate here. Please delete it.”

It is better to draw the line sooner rather than later or some people will feel they are being treated unfairly.

“Why is my post not OK but his post was OK?” 

“You’ve never said anything before so it seemed fine. So now you are just picking on me.”

Likewise if the boundaries are not set for the entire group (say because you only speak one on one to the offender) then others might think the behaviour is condoned.

What is the best practice?

Ideally, managers should set communication guidelines before there is an incident.

  • Keep communication professional and on point
  • Ensure your comments are respectful and inclusive
  • Do not share any media that is not necessary for work
  • Organisation rules on communication apply to virtual spaces

And as an ongoing practice, use nudges and clear communication to ensure everyone clearly understands what is acceptable.

Call it out. Call it early. Maintain respect.


Discussion Questions
This is an example of the kinds of questions Catalyse may use in facilitated group discussions on this topic.

What was wrong with what was shared? Should Grace accept that seeing these pictures is just part of her job?What would have been a better way for the team leader to handle the situation?

If Grace had never objected, would it have been OK to not intervene?

Given that the team leader is female and she was not upset by the images, does that mean it’s OK?

What could team members have done? What factors play a part in someone feeling empowered to speak up or not?

Does your organisation have policies that would apply to this situation?

Is your company prepared to deal effectively with harassment?

Is your company prepared to deal effectively with harassment?

Has your workplace implemented adequate measures to safeguard against harassment?

All organisations should have comprehensive policies and procedures to manage incidents of harassment so that they are dealt with in a fair and timely manner. Likewise, employees should be trained to to understand what kind of behaviour is unwelcome, how to respond to such behaviour and what support and recourse the organisation can provide.

This short questionnaire will help you identify some of the key areas that should be covered by such safeguards: Download Safeguards Questionnaire  

Note: this questionnaire is for guidance only and is not definitive. This information does not constitute legal advice. No data is collected on our website.
Please contact us if you would like to discuss how Catalyse Consulting can assist your organisation with drafting and implementing policies and procedures and/or running training programmes tailored to your organisations needs.
Do you work in a hostile environment?

Do you work in a hostile environment?

A hostile working environment is one where the behaviour of one or more people makes it difficult or uncomfortable for another person to do his or her job. Such behaviour may result in a person feeling discomfort, fear, alarm or distress. This behaviour may be targeted at and individual or at nobody in particular. Likewise intention to cause harm does not matter. In some jurisdictions, employers may be held liable for failing to take steps to prevent hostile work environments.

This short questionnaire will help you identify some of the characteristics of a hostile environment: Download Hostile Environment Questionnaire  

Note: this questionnaire is for guidance only and is not definitive. This information does not constitute legal advice. The legal definition of Hostile Environment may differ in your country. No data is collected on our website.
Please contact us if you would like to discuss how Catalyse Consulting can assist your organisation with drafting and implementing policies and procedures and/or running training programmes tailored to your organisations needs.