As an old IJ girl, few things are as empowering as being educated in an all-girls’ school taught and staffed by women. We rolled up our sleeves and did the heavy lifting, literally and figuratively, on matters big and small. We were taught to be women of compassion and critical thinking whether we were skinny and brown or stout and yellow, whether we were daughters of doctors or taxi drivers. When male teachers were inducted into the school, we suffered adjustments to our decorum. We were chided for tossing sanitary pads across the room to classmates who needed them rather than slipping them discreetly under their desks or into their bags. And after years of wielding the right to sit in any way we liked (because we were all girls and wore shorts under our pinafores), we relented to our female teachers’ exasperated plea to sit with our knees together. At all times.
And adjust we did, but no one told us to shine less brightly, or stand less tall.
However, when I agreed to attend the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s Career Women’s Group Her World International Women’s Day Conference (SCCCI-CWG Her World IWD 2017) in the first days of March, it was not the good old convent days that came to mind, but the sexism and inequality that I experienced when I began my foray as a young freelancer.
Two instances came to mind.
One of my very first jobs as a freelancer was copywriting for a now-defunct spa. I had agreed to meet with the owner of the spa many times a week to complete a brochure that paid very poorly, in spite of his constant sexual harassment. I found out later that he had hired a male copywriter on retainer and paid him six times what he paid me for a similar job.
During a Hari Raya visit, I was told by an aunt and mother of three beautiful daughters that I should “not aspire too highly” in my career because ultimately a woman’s job is raising her children and caring for her husband at home. Two of her daughters are homemakers, tailing their corporate-climbing husbands around the globe wherever they are posted.
Helen Campos from the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce
The SCCCI-CWG Her World IWD 2017 was the first time in a long time that I realised that I had indeed endured and brushed off instances of sexism and inequality, choosing to forge ahead in my personal and business life rather than dwell on circumstances that I clearly did not have the means to change. Ms Helen Campos from the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce struck a raw nerve in me when in her speech she exhorted the audience to press on in spite of the challenges.
Ms Ong Chih Ching, executive chairman and executive director of KOP Limited
On the other hand, it was apparent at the conference that success breeds success; social class greatly influences not only the extent to which a woman experiences sexism and inequality, but also what she can do about it. Women who come from educated and privileged families (middle class and upwards) are more likely to be successful compared to women who come from poor and uneducated families. Women who come from poor and uneducated families tend to suffer from more abuse and enjoy less support and mentorship than women who come from educated and privileged families.
Ms Ong Chih Ching, executive chairman and executive director of KOP Limited is an example, who in spite of her father’s disapproval was fortunate to have uncles who supported her law practice before she became a developer. Ms Noni Purnomo, President-Director of Blue Bird Group Holding was fortunate to have had her late grandmother as a role model; the latter had a university degree at a time when women in Indonesia were poor and largely uneducated.
Ms Noni Purnomo, President-Director of Blue Bird Group Holding
This has always been a sore point for me as a businesswoman. My biological parents were mostly illiterate. Living a hand to mouth existence, they insisted that my two older sisters work and contribute to the family upon their completion of the ‘A’ levels in spite of them desiring and qualifying for further education. Till this day, in my adopted family, I am one of the handful who made it to university and probably one of the fewer still who is still running her own business. My adopted and biological parents and relatives did not understand what I was doing, leave alone have the means to support me, and I obtained my first clients mostly through cold calls and visits rather than through referrals.
If there was anything that I took away from SCCCI-CWG Her World IWD 2017, it was gratitude. In the words of Ms Oh Chih Ching, no matter what the odds, at some point on this road that is my career, someone decided to take a chance on me, granted me a contract, referred me to a connected friend; in short, offered me a chance at a breakthrough to the next level of my personal and business development. I thought that this list of people who took a chance on me was going to be small — less than 10 people — until I actually listed them. Up to date I have listed 27 men and women who have supported me in my personal and business life — and counting — making my aunt and the lecherous spa owner less and less significant with each name that I add to this list.
All photos are courtesy of SCCCI-CWG Her World IWD 2017