This article was first published in the July 2012 Singapore edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
The Singapore Board Diversity Report 2011, compiled by BoardAgender and the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organizations, found that the participation of women on boards in Singapore to be a mere 6.9% – while Malaysia and Indonesia boast 7.8% and 10.7% respectively.
Halimah Yacob, minister of state for community development, youth and sports, said the findings were dismal. Speaking at an ACCA/BoardAgender event recognising the support for diversity from top business and community leaders, she pointed out that diversity is a competitive advantage for companies that embrace it. So why is it not happening?
According to observers – some of them board members themselves – one major reason for the lack of women at board level is the clique-like structure of many boards. While ability certainly plays a key role in the selection of board members, one’s network is often a deciding factor.
‘The board is just another example of a club,’ said Addison James, CEO of Holmes & Marchant Asia Pacific. Like a club, he elaborated, everyone knows everyone else; the same faces are often to be found across multiple boards; and getting into that select group is no easy job.
It is a ‘closed circle’, confirmed Alliance Practice partner Luar Eng Hwa, who is also an independent director of several privately owned companies. But looking on the brighter side, he added, this circle is beginning to open up, and opportunities for women are appearing.
Best person for the job
Expanding women’s role in business is essentially about maximising human capital, said BoardAgender co-chair Junie Foo. It is about ensuring that companies access the best leadership and talent, whether male or female, to maintain innovation, profitability and sustainability in today’s global economy.
‘Gender diversity in the workplace should be viewed as a business issue, not a gender issue,’ she said.
For example, Holmes & Marchant needs female input at all levels, said James. Citing research which estimates that women are responsible for 70% of all household purchasing decisions, he pointed out that ‘70% of the designs we make are seen by women’.
And even outside that, he added, the best performers tend to be women. ‘Women are probably better at marketing because they listen,’ he said.
Michael Zink, head of ASEAN at Citi, added: ‘If senior management does not reflect the marketplace in society, we are going to miss things,’ he said.
Gender diversity, he pointed out, is a matter of self-interest, and companies need to pursue it in a structured manner – having an open and transparent selection process, putting in place programmes that will prepare people to lead and assigning mentors to promising leadership candidates. Mentors are particularly important not just for the guidance they provide: they are needed to push people forward over their own modesty.
‘Sometimes, people are hesitant to say, “Pick me”,’ Zink explained.
Halimah was more explicit: ‘I think occasionally we [women] need to blow our trumpet a little bit,’ she said.
Certainly diversity, at whatever level, requires a change of mindset – for businesses and their boards, and possibly for women themselves. It is not just about looking different, said Darryl Wee, country head of ACCA Singapore. It is about thinking different as well, and therefore gaining a competitive advantage.
‘A business which embraces diversity and values different perspectives and experiences stands to gain an edge over its rivals,’ he said.
Mint Kang, journalist