updated 22 Mar 2014, 07:56
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When women opt out of the rat race
by Samantha Boh

Women talk of a glass ceiling at the workplace, but some set one for themselves by opting out of the rat race.

According to research by global recruitment agency Alexander Mann Solutions involving 210 female middle managers and 15 human resource leaders in Asia-Pacific (Apac), many cite personal reasons for difficulties in progressing to senior management.

Some 6 per cent just preferred to stay in their current position; 9 per cent lacked confidence to take on the extra responsibility; and 8 per cent stayed passive when it came to taking steps to climb up the corporate ladder.

For some, like Ms Joanne Tan, 42, the needs of the family came first.

She was a senior manager of corporate communications and climbing fast when her daughter's impending PSLE and son's learning difficulties prompted her to review her priorities.

So she quit her job in late 2012, went without income for six months and attended classes to create a new career for herself - one with room for her family commitments.

"At that point, I knew my kids needed me, so I decided to cut back and make them my sole priority," said Ms Tan, who currently works part-time as a training consultant.

Of course, company policies and the "old boys' club" can hinder women, but many hold themselves back by choosing to take on the main caregiver role.

Mr Erman Tan, president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, said: "The traditional mindset of women being the main pillar of support in the home still stands, and modern women still place that responsibility on themselves."

Managing director of PrimeStaff Management Services, Mr Ronald Lee, said that childbearing at the prime of one's career is another factor that hampers progress to senior management.

More subtle considerations are also at play.

"There are times when women limit themselves and feel they should not be the head of the office for fear of being labelled as aggressive, iron ladies or overly ambitious," said Ms Joanne Chua, associate director of Robert Walters Singapore.

West Coast GRC MP Foo Mee Har, who is also treasuer of the PAP Women's Wing, said that many of her staff in the past expressed hesitation when they were given a promotion. "The first thing they say is: 'Thank you every much, but I'm not sure if I'm ready for this,'" said Ms Foo.

The managing director of Alexander Mann Solutions for Apac, Ms Alison Baird, said it is a "two-way process" and that women, too, have to assert themselves to get that promotion.

Overall, company policies remained the biggest hindrance to women climbing up the corporate ladder. Some 11 per cent cited problems getting back on their career path after maternity leave or a break, 12 per cent mentioned a lack of sponsors in senior management and 6 per cent cited company culture.

Still, companies have become more accommodating. Some, like video collaboration solutions provider Polycom, allow staggered working hours and help mothers to reconnect via video before returning from maternity leave.

Ms Tan would have loved flexi-work. "But I have no regrets. I had a fulfilling 17-year career and I've now found a second career which gives me balance," she said.

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