Witness #18 | Siti Nur*
I am a patient with comorbidities stemming from a rare disease, which has been worsened by the office environment. This started about seven years ago. Increasingly, it has affected me.
Now, I am no longer fully functional. I use my limited energy reserves for work, as I am the breadwinner for my family. The medical conditions that I have impact on both my physical and mental health. I thus require close follow-up by a team of medical specialists, to ensure that I am able to function as my family’s breadwinner. I am an engineer; since 2018, I work on designing capability development programmes for the engineers in the Company based on the Company’s capability framework. I work closely with Engineering Departments in the Company and I have good rapport with stakeholders in these Departments. Despite the above, the Department that I am in is rife with sexism and toxic positivity, as the majority of the Department are women, but the Department’s management is led by men.
To differentiate the layers of management, I will use the following terms:
“Head of Department” (HOD), “Head of Unit” (HOU), and “Team Leader” (TL), who are all male;
My colleague and I are Co-Managers and will be referred to in this report as “Co-Managers”; and
“Team” will refer to those under our supervision who report directly to us (our direct reports).
Both of us Co-Managers are women, while our Team consists of one male and five female Team members. When I started in the Department, my HOU had asked me about my marital status. When he knew that I was unmarried, he remarked that it should be ok for me to work long hours, as I “don’t have family to care for”. Furthermore, I left the WhatsApp group of our Department, as I could not tolerate the non-stop horny takes, female bashing, and polygamy jokes.
At the same time, the WhatsApp group is also used to disseminate last-minute work assignments or changes in meeting venue, or time-bound / urgent requests from the HOU or HOD. Since removing myself from the group, I’ve had to rely on my Team to get details of the above. Most times, my Team forgets to update me. I work with earphones turned up loud to avoid being bombarded with the upsetting sexist noise in the work environment. I did not think to keep screenshots of the WhatsApp messages and have deleted the WhatsApp group as it has a bad triggering effect on me. Our TL, who is also an engineer, is well-known for being difficult to work with due to his inability to express his ideas and to conceptually link those with the objectives of projects under his administrative supervision. Both the HOD and HOU directed us as Co-Managers to report to the above-mentioned TL as our supervisor, and to 'babysit' him in meetings, especially with stakeholders. On many occasions, we both voiced, to both HOD and HOU, our frustration over working with such a direct supervisor.
Each time, senior management’s response to us was to “suck it up” and follow orders. This came from men with the power to intervene and find solutions that would not undermine staff well-being. Technically, we could perhaps have gone to a management level higher than my HOD. However, our experiences and observations regarding the prevailing Company behaviour indicated that we women managers would likely be told to be patient and to focus instead on ensuring KPI [Key Performance Indicators] delivery. Higher management treats women staffers as a pain when it comes to complaints, requests for transfers and other work opportunities. If we women push for change, the standard response is to silence us. I’ve experienced being overlooked for overseas postings, despite working on the project for some time, having been told by the manager of the overseas project that he needed me to be at the project location, and having better qualifications than a male colleague who succeeded in lobbying for the posting. Most of the wheeling and dealing for such opportunities happens in the smoking area or behind closed doors. Typically, most opportunities are not advertised, with information shared in a timely and transparent manner.
Experience in the Company has taught women employees the futility of raising issues (as no concrete action is taken) and the risk of jeopardising career prospects. When my direct supervisor was first assigned as the overall lead for our Team, none of the staff members had had prior experience of working directly with him. At the same time, my Team had a reputation of always being overachievers. Senior management expected us women overachievers to cover up for the incompetence and other failings of our male direct supervisor. So, in addition to handling our day-to-day tasks, my Co-Manager and I became Personal Assistants to our own direct supervisor. That required us, as a Team, to work beyond the usual 40 hours per week, to conduct workshops, lengthy meetings, and all the quality work that we were accustomed to undertake to meet our KPIs well. The senior management’s directive to me was to accompany my direct supervisor to the many meetings that he attended, ensure that all his presentations were fact-checked by the Team before he delivered them to stakeholders, as well as ensure delivery of Team results.
We (my colleague the Co-Manager, and I) have had to defend our Team members, and ensure that they complete work that supports our Team objectives and are spared from running around as per the male supervisor’s incoherent directives. This has resulted in stress and burnout within our Team. I do feel responsible for their wellbeing, and get distressed listening to their complaints on the extra work that we are all doing. I stay in the office until almost 8:00 pm. By the time I get home, it would be 10:00 pm, as I am dependent on public transport. Compliance with this directive has drained me. It is known to all the senior management that I spend time at the hospital weekly for physiotherapy and follow-up, which eats into official work hours at the office.
On average, I allocate three hours for one hospital visit, which includes commuting via Grab to and fro, waiting time, consultation time, physiotherapy session (one hour per session per week), and picking up medication from the pharmacy. Per week, it is usually six hours and I request a Time Slip, as per Company policy. The timing for visits is dependent on the respective specialist’s / physiotherapist’s clinic time. I try as much as possible to schedule most visits to coincide with lunch hour / end-of-office hour. Sometimes I drag my laptop to the clinics in the hope that I can do some work while waiting. If a meeting / workshop clashes with my hospital appointments, the other Co-Manager will step in or we will reschedule to a mutually suitable time. On average, each Team member spends between 9 to 12 hours per day at work. I know most of my Team members will at least check their emails on weekends too. This is to compensate for time lost from attending meetings (important or otherwise) to finish up actual work that we still need to carry out. I have to admit that due to my increasing depression and fatigue, I leave home late for work and I will have breakfast somewhere along the way to work.
At my lowest point, I went to work without taking care of my personal hygiene. I lose track of time, and I usually include my schedule into my handphone as a reminder. I go to work with a walking stick; hence, most colleagues assume that I have unresolved medical issues but do not understand the extent of it, how it is impacting my ability to deliver work, and why I require accommodations. I feel that the Company exploited my goodwill beyond what could reasonably be expected of any staff member. It is noteworthy that no male staff member has been subjected to the same directive. With my hospital visits and the number of MCs [medical certificates] taken, I believe that that was what my HOD meant when he commented that I was not as visible as other managers. I have also been told to show more enthusiasm and energy as I need to serve as a good example for my Team.
In 2019, I found a one-year Master’s programme that I could afford, to upgrade my knowledge and give me a break from the toxic work environment that entrapped me. I applied for unpaid study leave. My application was endorsed by: (1) The Company Occupational Health (OH) doctor; and (2) My HOD and HOU. It was also supported by (3) my whole Team. The situation compelled me to strategically obtain that endorsement and support, before I informed my direct supervisor of my planned leave of absence. My direct supervisor indicated that he might not support my leaving while the Team was neck-deep in work. I suggested potential replacements to ensure that my work would not be jeopardised by my leave. As I was trying to get endorsement for my leave, I had a chance meeting with one of the internal OH doctors. Since he was a doctor, I provided him with a background of my medical issues, and he suggested to me that post-Master’s programme, to come back and build experience within five years, and then resign from the Company, as a person with my comorbidities would be a potential target for severance. This is despite my ability to deliver my KPIs. Before leaving for my Master’s, I ensured that I delivered all my KPIs and was eligible for performance review.
Despite that, while I was on Company-approved study leave, my direct supervisor assumed that I was not eligible and did not contact me, as he was obliged to, to initiate a discussion on my performance review. Based on my first performance review in this new Department, I was rated highly in 2018. For 2019 I expected the same, as I had ensured my KPIs were met, but my TL failed to conduct the necessary steps required by HR [Human Resource] to ensure that I had a fair review evaluation. My TL gave me the lowest score in my Team. I lodged a complaint with HR. HR mediated two different sessions to address my complaint, and I was blamed for not initiating my performance review (since I was on unpaid leave). I was told I had not shown initiative in my handling of work, and I was unfairly blamed for my programme audit results, despite not being able to defend myself.
HR neglected to note that the reduced visibility resulted from the unacceptable level of stress imposed on me from the additional work of backstopping a direct supervisor whose incompetence, mismanagement and failures the senior management had refused to deal with. I knew it was pointless to argue further, since no change would be made to my ratings; thus, I decided to verbally accept the reasons given, which were then recorded in a grievance report where I was allowed to disagree on the report. Despite having stakeholders complain about the TL’s performance, his inability to align his performance with stakeholder objectives and requirements, and not having the support of the Team under his administrative responsibility, my direct supervisor was not punished. At the same time, the Company was aware of positive feedback from other stakeholders that I got to work with, but that positive feedback was ignored as they were not part of the performance committee that evaluated my performance. Soon after returning to work at the end of 2020, HR and my HOD offered me a severance package which I refused.
This is a normal tactic employed by the Company, especially during times of economic downturn, whereby they punish those who take prolonged leave, despite such leave being part of staff entitlement. At the same time, I lodged a complaint over my 2019 performance review. With my updated curriculum vitae, I applied for a new in-house position. Until now (eight months after my application), I have yet to be offered a new placement, and am left ‘floating’ within the Company. Discrimination between the genders in the Company is insidious. It has toxic effects and undermines our confidence in our skills. And, it is often apparent only to women staff members who are subjected to it. With the economic uncertainties created by the COVID-19 pandemic, women staffers in particular feel the pressure of possible retrenchment. Quite a few have decided to resign, as juggling work and household duties has proven to be difficult.
I hope my sharing will help towards improving work conditions for everyone in this country.