Singapore’s “Year of Celebrating SG Women” – a national effort in 2021 to review issues affecting women and spark a mindset change in society on values such as gender equality and respect – has not started on a promising note. When a Singaporean woman took to Facebook earlier this month to describe how a man had made a sexual comment to her during a conversation in a professional setting, the disdainful – and downright misogynistic – responses from male social media users came in fast and furious. The man in question was “an outstanding human” and the woman was “picking on something that is not there”, one user proclaimed. “Making a mountain out of a molehill. Next”, said another. Women’s rights: why Singapore wants to change the way we think about gender equality Others latched on to the woman’s profession – she is Sharul Channa, a full-time comedienne – and asked why she could not take a joke, but thought the comment by public relations firm owner and talk show host Viswa Sadasivan constituted sexual harassment . These reactions show that even in a developed society like Singapore , which has made significant improvements in closing the gender gap, changing attitudes towards gender equality will be an uphill challenge. Sharul had been invited to an online talk show hosted by Viswa about “being a stand-up comedian, who also speaks on women’s issues”. Before the recording, which took place on Zoom, Viswa asked her why she was wearing a rose brooch on her left collar. She replied that she wore it to distract from the pattern on her top, to which Viswa replied: “It would be more distracting if you were wearing only that rose.” She raised her discomfort about the comment with Viswa’s staff after the recording, and received an apology from the former nominated member of parliament. She later went public about it, stating on Facebook that this “is one of the biggest issues women face; workplace harassment. And If I don’t speak out about this, I am not being true to myself and what I stand for”. NUS professor fired for sexual misconduct after sexting, harassment investigation It is an age-old fact that women worldwide have more often than men been subject to unwelcome or offensive remarks of a sexual nature in the workplace about their appearance, body or activities; in worse cases, they have faced sexual coercion or unwanted advances. This has not gone away with working from home – it has merely migrated to the online spaces in which professional interactions are carried out. In India, for example, Akancha Srivastava, who runs an initiative that helps people battling cyber abuse, said she saw a sharp rise in complaints last year from women – and some men – reporting harassment during online meetings and through emails. The #MeToo movement that helped expose incidents of sexual harassment and assault has not led to an overall decline in such actions, though one hopes that in reducing the stigma that affected women face, it has tempered the negative effects of such incidents on their self-esteem. Several Asian countries have started to tighten laws on this front – since last year, Japan has required large companies to put in place measures to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and punish harassers while Malaysia is formulating a new bill that will supposedly better protect women from such harassment. One focus of policymakers’ efforts should also be to correct existing misconceptions that people have about sexual harassment. Why not launch a formal programme, led by trained professionals, to promote gender awareness and sensitivity training in classrooms? As Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group Aware wrote on Facebook, harassment is “not evaluated by the subject’s conscious intentions, but by its impact on the victim”. Neither should a person’s stated belief in gender equality negate the fact that they have committed harassment. Some may not agree with the means that women have used to call out sexual harassment, via social media for example, but why should the public not be told, in a factual and rational way, about an offensive act committed by a public figure? Japanese man adopts wife’s name in bid to challenge nation’s sexism Another focus should be emphasising to leaders across all sectors of society that they must have zero tolerance for victim-blaming and instead, feel empowered to denounce efforts to intimidate and attack women who speak out about harassment. And when these leaders are themselves guilty of sexual harassment, they cannot be allowed to remain in positions of authority. Lastly, role models matter. The fathers, brothers, husbands and friends who uplift and support women will be key in convincing the rest of the male community that it is possible and essential to create a more equitable society for women, including putting a stop to the pervasive culture of victim blaming. We must also celebrate these men.