While women in Singapore are able to equally enjoy the benefits of many of the country’s achievements, they continue to lag in their representation in the boardroom. Cynthia Stuckey, Asia Pacific managing director of The Forum Corporation, links up the challenges with possible solutions for a stronger SG100.
Singapore has transformed from a fishing village to one of the most prosperous financial centres in the world within 50 years.
But while women in Singapore are able to equally enjoy the benefits of many of the country’s achievements including access to education, social welfare and the opportunity to work, there is still a key area where women lag behind men; and that is representation in boardroom.
According to the Diversity Action Committee (DAC) report in 2014, although the number of female representatives on boards rose 10% in 2014, the percentage of women directors in Singapore is still only 8.8%, and trails many established and developing economies, including neighbours like Indonesia, Hong Kong, India and Malaysia.
When it comes to female representation at the board level, the only way is up, with many studies showing an association between having women on boards and a company’s positive financial performance.
According to a report titled “Diversity Matters: Adding Colours to Boards in APAC” by Korn Ferry and the National University Singapore in 2015, Singapore companies enjoy 2.4% more in return on equity if they have at least 10% of their boardroom represented by women.
Seeing Singapore is also faced with a shrinking and ageing population, a shortage of local manpower could become a serious concern over the next 50 years.
In view of this, even greater value should be placed on maximising the potential of female leadership in Singapore to improve productivity and drive Singapore’s economy towards SG100.
Challenges en route to SG100
One way to do this is for the government to place a mandatory minimum quota on female directorships. However, this can be seen as controversial as some will believe that women undeservingly obtain directorships to simply fill a reserved space.
The Diversity Task Force estimates that without regulatory intervention, the percentage of women directors may only grow to 17% by 2030.
Placing a mandatory minimum quota on female directorships can be seen as controversial as some will believe that women undeservingly obtain directorships to simply fill a reserved space.
So what are the barriers prohibiting Singapore women from taking a seat in the boardroom?
According to the report titled “Gender Diversity on Boards” by Ministry of Social and Family Development in 2014, many companies are not yet fully convinced of the benefits of board gender diversity, with only 4% of companies making efforts to include at least one female candidate in the selection process.
The report also shows that companies might be over-reliant on personal networks, as 42% of them only use this method when searching for the right candidate – therefore, further limiting opportunities for professional women as there may not be many in the network to begin with.
Some companies also indicated that they lacked ‘qualified’ female candidates.
The survey shows that the top three attributes that companies looking for when choosing board directors are: 1. board-level experience; 2. specialised skills; 3. relevant industry experience.
Since there are not many women directors in SGX-listed companies, this can limit women to being seen as ‘not qualified’ or not having the necessary board-level experience.
This can also place female candidates in the ‘how to get experience without experience’ category, often deterring them from even applying for senior or board level positions.
Finally, women tend to be more reluctant to take up a director’s role, as they also have the added consideration of having children and how this will impact their work and vice versa.
While it is not impossible to be a senior manager or director with a family, there are certain sacrifices that have to be made with frequent travel and longer work hours associated with such positions.
After women have families they often must reconsider their career paths. By this time some women have already decided not to pursue senior roles; or time taken off to have a family has put them years behind male counterparts also going for board positions.
So what can we in Singapore do to encourage great female representation in boardrooms?
Women tend to be more reluctant to take up a director’s role, as they also have the added consideration of having children and how this will impact their work and vice versa.
Solutions towards diversity
Employers play a large role, and earlier in a woman’s career need to provide a supportive ladder to climb if that is what is wanted.
To develop a female-friendly environment across all levels in an organisation, there are a few steps companies can take.
First of all, companies can include gender diversity policies with measurable objectives and then report progress annually.
Fair consideration of women for jobs at all levels should also be included in HR policies, so that women are not left out during the board member selection process.
For example, a company can disclose the hiring procedures of its board members to the public, and commit to updating board members regularly to prevent stagnation. With greater turnover will come more frequent change and increased opportunity for women to secure a seat at the board table.
In general, the role of women in the workplace, even at less senior levels, can be changed quite drastically by providing an environment that is more conducive to balancing work and family commitments.
A focus on providing a more flexible work environment with conditions that can be tailored to individual needs, such as enabling flexible work hours or even working from home can go a long way in keeping women in the workforce and developing their careers.
By balancing work and family life and remaining in the workforce, women can continue to develop their careers and strive for a directorship further down the track, rather than putting their career on hold and almost starting from scratch once returning to work.
Finally, identifying talented young women and providing them with leadership training and mentorship programmes should become more commonplace.
This type of support will not only encourage women to develop themselves further, but will also enable them to gain a better picture of what life is like for a director, allowing them to be better prepare for the responsibilities that come with the position and equip themselves with the necessary skills.
Plus, it will ensure organisations are staffed by competent, well-trained leaders at all levels and provide a pipeline of qualified leaders to build the business.
Providing a more flexible work environment tailored to individual needs, such as enabling flexible work hours or even working from home can go a long way in keeping women in the workforce.
No doubt there are talented women leaders in Singapore who are capable and possess valuable experience for board positions, but many companies haven’t realised this yet.
Committing to achieving greater female representation in boardrooms is definitely one area that should be focused on going forward. As our focus shifts from SG50 to building even greater success by SG100, it will be exciting to see the development of increased gender balance in senior roles and at the board level.
Singapore still has some way to go before achieving a 50:50 gender balance in boardrooms.
But one thing is for sure, she doesn’t shy away from a challenge, so why not make this one to focus on over the next 50 years? Female representation on boards can only go up – the only direction Singapore likes to go!