Over the past decades, great strides have been made in the field of gender equality. Enterprises and communities today are placing greater scrutiny and emphasis on women’s representation and empowerment. Globally, the co-operatives in different sectors are also dedicating more resources and efforts to champion gender equality too.
In a 2019 interview, Ariel Guarco, the president of the International Co-operative Alliance, said: “It is fundamental that the co-operative movement generates strategies to facilitate and encourage their participation not only in co-operatives, but also within the public and political life.” He also argued how co-operatives and the feminist movements can work together to drive change from the ground up.
On home turf, SNCF is also embarking on a continual journey that celebrates and commemorates the efforts of female co-operators in Singapore. The inaugural SNCF Co-Op Movement Night, which is set to take place in June 2022, aims to recognise female co-operators, who have made a difference by spotlighting how their efforts to help others and how they have exhibited several of the co-operative values. Paying homage to women’s proclivity for making the impossible possible, this year’s theme is aptly termed “Women Make Magic”. Members, who are keen to nominate their colleagues, can reach out to SNCF staff members for assistance.
“We all stand on the sacrifices on a million women before us, and what we can do now, is to push boundaries and pave the way forward so that women after us can see further and achieve more,” says Thian Ai Ling, general manager of My First Skool and afterschool, NTUC First Campus and a member of SNCF’s executive council (EXCO).
On how the Singapore co-operative movement can empower female co-operators, one of Seacare’s founding member and SNCF EXCO member Shena Foo adds: “I strongly believe that harnessing the strengths of empowered women can improve an organisation’s performance and success.”
In an exclusive interview, SNCF spoke with SNCF’s EXCO members Ai Ling and Shena on what they hope to see in the co-operative landscape and how can co-operatives be the vehicle of change for female co-operators in Singapore.
What does the idea of women’s empowerment mean to you?
Ai Ling: To me, women empowerment is about accepting women's viewpoints (and making efforts to seek them) and listening to their voices. Women's empowerment equips and allows women to make life-determining decisions through the different problems in society.
I will illustrate this through this example — a few years back, I visited a hospital in Bangalore in India that employed many female workers, which was rather rare then. The doctor shared that they do that because when these women bring home income and resources, it allows them to make better and more strategic decisions for themselves, their families’ well-being and society’s progress.
Shena Foo: To me, women empowerment means recognising that women have immense potential and enabling them to develop such potential. At the workplace, empowerment can be nurtured through mentorship, leadership development and networking. I strongly believe that harnessing the strengths of empowered women can improve an organisation’s performance and success.
Do you consider yourself a powerful woman?
AL: Powerful no, I think that being powerful has this connotation of control and force. Instead, I prefer considering myself as someone who is persuasive or supportive, one who is passionate about others and can scaffold others for success.
SF: I see myself as an independent woman. Having worked for an organisation that empowers women, I have had many opportunities to offer different perspectives and ideas to others.
How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?
AL: This almost needs no response. As women, we must advocate for one another, lift our fellow ladies up, and support other women in actualizing their potential.
While it is important to hone our own skills, we should also honour and celebrate the gifts and strengths of other women too. This can be as simple as recognising another woman when she does something good. Not only will this bolster her confidence, but it also sends a clear reminder that she is as talented, skilled, and capable as her male peers. Having a community of support is equally empowering. Both men and women should be proactive at initiating conversations on issues or challenges women face on the go. This way, we can get support and allow other women to feel safe when making decisions, failing, fixing mistakes and moving on. We can all take small steps every day to amplify other women’s voices and help lift them up. The ripple effect can be created through women (and men) empowering women.
SF: According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development, 2021 was dedicated as the Year of Celebrating SG Women. We have come this far because women have been supporting one another in realising their potential. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support from other women: my family members, friends, colleagues and of course, my fellow co-operators.
What did you dream of doing when you were a young girl?
AL: I don’t recall having a specific dream occupation in mind, although we used to have write about “My Occupation” back in schools. I remember wanting to do work that will allow me to develop, shape and tinker with ideas. I wanted to do different things, with different people and in turn create something valuable. I guess this is true with the exciting and meaningful work I have been and am doing at NTUC First Campus.
SF: I dreamt of being independent and I became the woman I wanted to be.
Have you faced any barriers in your career due to being a woman? If so, how did you overcome them?
AL: I have not faced what I will term as real barriers in my career because I am a woman. Perhaps this is because I’ve been working in a sector that promotes and support women. I do know that this may not be true for some. Through my work experiences and interacting with other women leaders, especially from those who are based overseas, I realised many of them really struggle just because they are women. Often, it has nothing to do with their aspirations and competencies. I remember witnessing how the women leaders, who spoke alongside me at the World Education Congress, shedding tears when asked this same question. I believe women are strong, it is about changing the way the world perceives this strength. In Singapore, I must say we do have a balanced view of women empowerment.
SF: No, as my roles and responsibilities were and are based on my strengths and capabilities.
What can co-operatives do to empower women in today’s context?
AL: We should promote co-operatives’ values and principles, and not be distracted by gender biases. Co-operatives such as SNCF can facilitate greater access for women to advisory services, skills and management training, and finance to start up and strengthen their cooperative ventures. I shared about empowering women through accepting their viewpoints and listening to their voices, so, we should encourage women’s participation in co-operatives across all levels, particularly at senior levels, and women can be agents of change.
SF: In Singapore, more than 80% of the co-operative workforce are women. While businesses of co-operatives have a positive impact on women with their inclusion in the labour force and economic activity, women’s representation in the co-operative leadership position is less than 25%. Co-operatives can, as mentioned above, nurture empowerment by recognising their potential, providing mentorship and leadership development, and facilitate equal access to management and leadership positions. Co-operatives can work with SNCF to develop and implement such strategies.
What is one advice you would give to women who are trying to start or lead a co-operative?
AL: Believe and trust that the collective power of women for social change cannot be undervalued. There is always another dependable and trusted woman who can offer you help, advice and illuminate your path, so no one is alone. So ignore the glass ceiling, and focus the possibilities instead.
SF: As co-operatives are people-centered enterprises owned and run by and for their members to realise their needs and aspirations. I see similarity with women empowerment ? My advice is to go for it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.