IT'S hard for the average young woman in Singapore to imagine this, but just 50 years ago, polygamy was not only legal, it was common.

And 10 years ago, it was still common for the medical school here to discriminate against women, by limiting them to one-third of the intake.

Just how far Singapore has come when it comes to women's issues was driven home for me personally, when I interviewed a few prominent women activists for an article for International Women's Day which falls today. One thing that struck me was just how different the issues they battled against were, from the issues that women today face.

Women of yore spoke out and lobbied - successfully - against polygamy and overt discrimination. These were issues where advocates had a clear target of what they wanted - to outlaw a practice or to abolish a rule - and a precise way to measure success.

So when the Women's Charter was passed in 1961, and when the quota on medical school was abolished in 2003, women across the nation rejoiced.

These days, women's education and job attainments are close to those of men. But the battle for equal recognition continues, albeit in a different form. What raises the ire of women's activists these days are not issues that deal with 'hard law', but those that reveal the 'software' of society, like mindsets.

One example is the reluctance of many companies to commit to real change that offers better work-life balance to their employees. A survey of 200 multinational companies and small and medium-sized enterprises in 2008 showed that just over a third offered flexible arrangements like part-time work.

Then there is the hoary chestnut about the lack of women in top leadership positions. Although 51 per cent of women in the workforce are professionals, managers or technicians, only 6.8 per cent of board members in public-listed firms are women.

In politics, about a quarter of all Members of Parliament are women - an improvement from just a decade ago, when 12 per cent were women. Still, there is only one woman minister, Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, out of a Cabinet of 21. Only six out of 22 permanent secretaries in the Civil Service are women.

While the proportion of women in these top boardroom and public sector positions has gone up over the years, more can be done to tap the talent of the female workforce, especially as the labour market continues to tighten.

Women here are well-educated, with over 50 per cent of graduates being women. So lack of skills cannot explain the lower employment rate of women.

The key reason, say activists and women, is that many drop out of the workforce to raise children.

Many women aspire to return to the workforce after childbirth, or to juggle family and work. However, workplace practices remain stuck in the 1950s, with most companies requiring that staff work 9am to 5pm or longer, and with not many offering family-friendly practices of working from home or on flexi-hours.

The old way worked, when households depended on one breadwinner to go to work, while the other parent stayed home to take care of the kids. Back in 1957 when only 26.1 per cent of women worked, this was not a problem. And when they started families, most women stopped work anyway.

Today, 56.5 per cent of women work, which means many juggle child-rearing responsibilities and work. More often than not, they rely on other family members - husband, parents, siblings - to help out. These people too may be workers, who would also benefit from family-friendly practices.

In other words, flexi-work practices help not only women, but all workers. They also go some way towards helping persuade couples to have more babies.

As labour chief Lim Swee Say noted over the weekend, countries like Norway have high global employment and fertility rates, and also fare well on the happiness index, because they take an inclusive approach to women.

A whopping 80 per cent of women work in Norway, compared to Singapore's 56.5 per cent. The total fertility rate there is 1.96, compared to 1.16 here.

When families are unable to balance work and family on their own time, it is often the women who drop out of the workforce, says labour MP Halimah Yacob. 'But if some flexibility were allowed, they could continue working. The challenge is in getting these women back to work once they have dropped out, so it is better to allow some flexibility to keep them at work,' she said.

Companies have no better time than now to relook their work processes to see how to allow more flexibility, and to make themselves more family-friendly. This is because the Government is pushing companies to restructure their workforces to raise productivity.

The experience of property developer City Developments Limited and consumer products firm Procter & Gamble (P&G) Asia will show that the answer lies in family-friendly practices.

At City Developments, more than 30 per cent of its staff choose their work hours within management-set limits.

Over at P&G Asia, both male and female staff can choose to take on a reduced work schedule, say by working four days a week instead of five, and receive pro-rated pay. With flexible work arrangements, both firms found that their workers were happier and healthier. They took fewer sick days, and their staff retention rate was much higher.

Companies that offer flexibility will be better able to attract and retain talented women keen to continue in the workforce after they have children.

The battle against discrimination has been won in the courtroom, where women are promised equality under the law, especially in crucial areas of inheritance and property rights denied to the female sex in many societies for centuries.

Women's activists now have to bring the battle for equal recognition back to the workplace, in their struggle to get employers to realise that flexible work practices are not only women-friendly, but also family-friendly.

And productive to boot.