Board diversity in Asia-Pacific: Singapore slips a notch

Dr Marleen Dieleman, associate professor at the Department of Strategy and Policy at NUS Business School.
Dr Marleen Dieleman, associate professor at the Department of Strategy and Policy at NUS Business School.
Ms Wong Su-Yen, who chairs the board of local listed firm Nera Telecommunications.
Ms Wong Su-Yen, who chairs the board of local listed firm Nera Telecommunications.

New study ranks it eighth out of 10 Asia-Pacific economies in terms of female representation

Singapore has fallen further behind in achieving a better gender balance on company boards.

A new study ranked the country eighth out of 10 Asia-Pacific economies, down from seventh last year, after being overtaken by India.

Australia was ranked first followed by New Zealand and China.

Singapore still remains ahead of Japan and South Korea in terms of female representation on boards.

The survey found that in 2014, just 7.7 per cent of directors here were female compared with 10.2 per cent for the region as a whole.

Female board representation in Singapore has grown "marginally" - an average of 0.43 percentage point a year - since 2011 and by 2014, 46 per cent of boards still had no female directors.

MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE

Without doing something more substantial, I don't see Singapore suddenly changing.

DR MARLEEN DIELEMAN, associate professor at the Department of Strategy and Policy at NUS Business School 

The study conducted by Korn Ferry and the NUS Business School's Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations looked at the top 100 firms in each market, using data from 2014 annual reports.

It noted that government initiatives in Australia, India and Malaysia contributed to substantial increases in female board representation.

In Malaysia, the percentage of women members grew 4.2 percentage points from 2013 to 12.5 per cent in 2014. In Australia, the representation rate rose 3.3 percentage points to 21.9 per cent.

Singapore has taken steps to improve female board representation. In 2014, the Diversity Action Committee (DAC) was formed for this purpose.

Last September, Parliament Speaker Halimah Yacob, who is also the adviser to the DAC, called on companies to step up their efforts to appoint more women directors to reap business benefits.

THE QUESTION TO ASK

If you say there aren't enough women directors, then the next question you should ask is, 'Are there enough women chief executives or senior leaders?' If there aren't enough... it's hard to imagine how there would be enough directors.

MS WONG SU-YEN, who chairs the board of local listed firm Nera Telecommunications

Dr Marleen Dieleman, associate professor at the Department of Strategy and Policy at NUS Business School, told a briefing on the study's results yesterday: "We don't see a regulatory push here (for more female representation) like we see in the other countries. Without doing something more substantial, I don't see Singapore suddenly changing."

Ms Dieleman added that directors here also stay in their positions the longest out of all the economies surveyed. Less turnover meant less renewal, she said.

The average tenure for male directors here is 9.4 years, while across the region it is 6.75 years, the survey found.

The issue of diversity may also take a back seat in the near term as companies try to cut costs and restructure amid slow economic growth, said Ms Alicia Yi, managing director for board and chief executive services at Korn Ferry. However, she noted that women could bring a different perspective to the table when navigating a more complex world of lower growth and technological disruption.

The survey also found that firms with at least 10 per cent of female board members delivered a 14.9 per cent return on equity in 2014, compared with 12.6 per cent for those without.

Ms Wong Su-Yen, who chairs the board of local listed firm Nera Telecommunications, said that if organisations generally develop women for leadership roles, there would be a pool of board candidates who are female.

"If you say there aren't enough women directors, then the next question you should ask is, 'Are there enough women chief executives or senior leaders?'

"If there aren't enough ... it's hard to imagine how there would be enough directors."

She added that leadership and networking opportunities, and experiences in previous career roles had prepared her to take up her current board positions.

Ms Wong is also independent director at listed firm Yoma Strategic Holdings and independent director at MediaCorp.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'Board diversity: S'pore slips a notch'. Print Edition | Subscribe