Economically inactive women not working hard

From ‘Economically inactive women do contribute to nation’,  14 March 2013, and ‘Let’s help more women get back to work’ 16 March 2013, ST Forum

(Soon Hao Jing): PART of Nominated MP Mary Liew’s Budget speech on March 5 focused on encouraging more women to work. Citing government efforts since 2007, she emphasised the need to continue pushing women who are economically inactive to work, so as to increase the labour force participation rate.

She said there are about 272,000 adult women below the age of 60 who are “economically inactive”. In her concluding remarks, she suggested allowing six months’ maternity leave and stated a need to strengthen childcare facilities here.

Ms Liew is wrong to assume that those “economically inactive” women do not contribute to our economy. “Inactive” suggests they are idle, instead of working hard. That is a narrow view of things. Most of these women are presumably housewives; some of them may have disabilities or illnesses that force them to stay home.

Also, don’t housewives contribute to Singapore by tending to household chores and their families’ needs? We must not apply double standards to women by expecting them to work at jobs like men, while fulfilling their familial duties after work. This shows neither empowerment nor gender equality.

(Mary Liew):…In my speech, I quoted the statistics as well as the term “economically inactive” from the Ministry of Manpower’s “Labour Force in Singapore, 2012” report, which it published on Jan 31.

The ministry defines one who is “economically inactive” as “neither working nor looking for a job“. This is the context in which I called for the Government and employers to do more to encourage women who choose to work, to stay in or return to the workforce, and at the same time, balance their need to fulfill familial roles.

Wouldn’t it have been simpler to say ‘women who are NOT working’ than use cluttered manpower jargon? NMP Mary Liew’s response on what it means to be ‘economically inactive’ raises more questions as to what ‘not looking for a job’ means. Are you too LAZY to do so, or want to but are unable to due to family commitments? How does one classify tai-tais then? That’s the problem with jumping on the trendy catchphrase bandwagon, you pile on all kinds of unintentionally offensive nuances when calling it like it is would have been the neutral, though boring, option. All this fancy talk in terms of dollars, but not making much sense.

‘Economically inactive’ may also be taken a euphemism for ‘unemployment’ or ‘joblessness’, like how ‘mentally challenged’ is a more polite term for ‘idiot’, or ‘visually impaired’ for the blind. Still, no matter what term you use it doesn’t make a MAN sound less of a BUM in the Asian breadwinner context if he, willingly or unwillingly, isn’t holding on to a job. Even if you’re not earning your keep by ‘working’, you may still be labelled a ‘discouraged worker‘. So the MOM can read our emotions now eh? What if I’m just, well, picky?

This blanket term was used even way back in the 80’s, when it encompassed not just women, but the disabled, children and retirees.  Well that includes babies then, which questions the value of using economic inactivity as a gauge of gender equality.  ‘Jobless’ and ‘Unemployed’ have become unpalatable terms these days, as they no longer imply ‘without a job’ but bear harsh connotations of personal failure. You could be the most miserable office-rat on earth but at least ‘you have a job’ and hence, thank God, ‘economically active’. You’re the Ant and anyone else who doesn’t work a Grasshopper.

Mary Liew’s intention, I suppose, was to portray these economically inactive women as an untapped ‘pool of talent and resources’, a view that has been held for almost 3 decades, but by her choice of labels alone, she may have exerted undue pressure on women who thrive on being ‘economically inactive’, like housewives, volunteers and those choosing to leave their jobs to look after aged parents. Or SPGs. But I doubt the latter would care anyway.


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