Long way to go for gender equality

One thing we can do is consistently call out instances of gender bias

The last 18 months have been marked by great strides for women. It started with the Women's March, in which more than two million people flooded the streets of US cities to protest against the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Then came exposures of sexual harassment, with the #MeToo movement, which toppled powerful men such as movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

For their impact, Time magazine named "The Silence Breakers", those men and women who have spoken out against sexual harassment and assault, as its 2017 Person of the Year.

But the backlash has already started. What is surprising is that this pushback is coming from women.

One fear is that if men have to tiptoe around female colleagues, decreased opportunities for women will follow. It is a legitimate concern.

If women are seen as a victimised class for whom special protections are needed, the gender equality the women's liberation movement has worked so hard to achieve could be eroded.

As a woman, I just want to work in an environment that is blind to my gender.

Singaporean women are blessed to work in a country where blatant sexual discrimination and harassment are, at least anecdotally, rare.

That said, our abysmal progress in achieving gender equality in the boardroom tells its own story - that we still have a long journey ahead.

First, we should consistently and fearlessly call out instances of gender bias that exhibit genuine sexism, whether or not it is directed at you, and even where the act is unconscious.

A meeting I attended, where a senior business leader made a joke about the arbitrariness of thresholds in corporate governance illustrated this point. He had likened it to "sex with an underage girl".

"If it is her 16th birthday," he mused, "her boyfriend can have sex with her legally, but sex the day before is a crime."

My objection to this inappropriate comment was met with a brush-off, but another male attendee apologised to the women. I appreciated that, but the apology could have been directed to everyone because sexism diminishes us all.

Women sometimes feel obliged to tolerate sexist comments poorly wrapped in a veneer of humour so we do not come across as prim or thin-skinned. But inaction in the face of even casual sexism can engender a more general prejudice.

At the same time, political correctness can go too far. There is a move in the West to turn the workplace into a bastion of chillingly appropriate behaviour.

Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway says men should not compliment their female coworkers on their looks.

"A comment from a man about a woman's appearance is usually due to one of three things", she argues: lechery, gallantry (which she feels does not sit well with corporate manners) or awkwardness (because "men don't know what to say to their professional female colleagues and gormlessly admire their wardrobes").

While I agree that commenting on a woman's appearance can be an act of sexual harassment, it could just be a friendly gesture and also humanises the workplace.

With no hard and fast rules, one needs to be sensible about whether words or actions amount to harassment. They ultimately come down to intent, and have to be taken in context.

The writer is joint managing partner at TSMP Law. This was sourced from its newsletter and appeared in The Business Times on July 5.