Singapore’s gender pay gap persists, but has the gap narrowed or grown?

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A study by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and National University of Singapore economist Jessica Pan found that women in Singapore still earn less than men, but whereas ST went with the headline “Singapore women earn 6% less than men, but gap has narrowed: Study” (ST, Jan. 9) (emphasis mine), TODAY chose “MOM’s first nationwide study shows gap growing slightly between median wages of men and women” (TODAY, Jan. 10) (emphasis mine). The difference, related to the two measurement methods, was that ST compared the gap in adjusted median pay (8.8 per cent in 2002 and six in 2018) while TODAY compared the gap in unadjusted median pay (16 per cent in 2002 and 16.3 in 2018).

The adjustment was based on human capital factors (age and education) as well as labour market factors (occupational role, industry, and the number of hours worked). In particular, the effects of the labour market factors have increased from 2002 to 2018, and occupational differences have played a bigger role in 2018 than in 2002.

An obvious question specific to the study is why MOM chose the two time points of 2002 to 2018, and relatedly more information could be provided about the data source, the Comprehensive Labour Force Survey of 33,000 households. How often is the survey conducted, and is the data collected from the same households? Is there data available before 2002 and between 2002 and 2018, which would then allow for the adjusted and unadjusted median pay gaps to be tracked over time? And consequently, could there be other explanations for the pay gap in the same period, and what other data is collected through the survey?

At first glance, in terms of the reporting of the study, TODAY perhaps provided a more convincing account of why it used the gap in unadjusted median pay gap instead of the adjusted one. Explaining that the unadjusted one “is important in helping to understand the reasons behind why women make certain occupational choices”, the article cited other sources (the Association of Women for Action and Research and labour economist Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences) and also considered other studies – by website Glassdoor and consumer research firm ValueChampion – which has sought to quantify Singapore’s gender pay gap.

The best report of the study, however, may have been economist Jessica Pan’s commentary of her own research findings. Explaining that the adjusted gender pay gap offers “a more like-for-like comparison”, she highlights the persistence of occupational segregation in Singapore, with women and men making different education and career decisions:

“One key reason for occupational segregation in Singapore is that women remain primary caregivers within households today; they may find it difficult to fulfil both work and family commitments in certain occupations that have long and inflexible hours. This may lead some women to gravitate towards lower-paying jobs that offer shorter or more flexible hours”.

Conceding that the adjustment does not take into account other unmeasured factors such as dissimilarities in seniority, job tasks, or company size, the economist identified motherhood and gender norms as important reasons for the gender pay gap. She concluded:

“Work-family trade-offs are likely to be the main explanation for continued gender differences in the labour market. To meaningfully address the gender pay gap, all workers, and not just women, should continue to be given the choice to pursue their career and family aspirations.

Government and corporate support for both genders to access childcare and workplace flexibility is key. These initiatives help to attract and retain workers, so that those with high earnings potential do not feel the need to leave the workforce for childcare or family responsibilities. These have to go hand-in-hand with policies that promote more progressive family norms and encourage shared parental responsibilities. Only with these changes will we be able to fully transition towards a society that fully embraces the talents of both men and women”.

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