Companies benefit from board diversity, say bosses

Clockwise from top left: Mrs Fang Ai Lian, Ms Elizabeth Kong and Ms Aliza Knox are on the board of SingPost; Mrs Ow Foong Pheng and Ms Euleen Goh are the two women among the nine members of DBS Bank's board.
Mrs Fang Ai Lian (above), Ms Elizabeth Kong and Ms Aliza Knox are on the board of SingPost; Mrs Ow Foong Pheng and Ms Euleen Goh are the two women among the nine members of DBS Bank's board.
Mrs Fang Ai Lian, Ms Elizabeth Kong (above) and Ms Aliza Knox are on the board of SingPost; Mrs Ow Foong Pheng and Ms Euleen Goh are the two women among the nine members of DBS Bank’s board.
Mrs Fang Ai Lian, Ms Elizabeth Kong (above) and Ms Aliza Knox are on the board of SingPost; Mrs Ow Foong Pheng and Ms Euleen Goh are the two women among the nine members of DBS Bank’s board.
Mrs Fang Ai Lian, Ms Elizabeth Kong and Ms Aliza Knox (above) are on the board of SingPost; Mrs Ow Foong Pheng and Ms Euleen Goh are the two women among the nine members of DBS Bank’s board.
Mrs Fang Ai Lian, Ms Elizabeth Kong and Ms Aliza Knox (above) are on the board of SingPost; Mrs Ow Foong Pheng and Ms Euleen Goh are the two women among the nine members of DBS Bank’s board.
Clockwise from top left: Mrs Fang Ai Lian, Ms Elizabeth Kong and Ms Aliza Knox are on the board of SingPost; Mrs Ow Foong Pheng and Ms Euleen Goh are the two women among the nine members of DBS Bank's board.
Mrs Fang Ai Lian, Ms Elizabeth Kong and Ms Aliza Knox are on the board of SingPost; Mrs Ow Foong Pheng (above) and Ms Euleen Goh are the two women among the nine members of DBS Bank's board.
Clockwise from top left: Mrs Fang Ai Lian, Ms Elizabeth Kong and Ms Aliza Knox are on the board of SingPost; Mrs Ow Foong Pheng and Ms Euleen Goh are the two women among the nine members of DBS Bank's board.
Mrs Fang Ai Lian, Ms Elizabeth Kong and Ms Aliza Knox are on the board of SingPost; Mrs Ow Foong Pheng and Ms Euleen Goh (above) are the two women among the nine members of DBS Bank's board.

Company boards featuring greater diversity - more women, for example - can offer a broader range of insights, help sharpen competitiveness and identify potential risks in a fast-changing business world.

Those views of some top-listed company bosses here were offered in the wake of a proposal unveiled last week by two women's groups to set a goal of doubling female board representation by 2020.

The level is a little under 10 per cent, so they are aiming for 20 per cent.

The PAP Women's Wing and BoardAgender, an initiative of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, also called for a requirement for firms to disclose board gender diversity in their annual reports.

Three major companies - DBS Bank, Singtel and SingPost - with better-than-average female board representation told The Straits Times that diversity promotes robust discussion and contributes to more effective decision-making. Assessing candidates based on their merits will always be an important guiding principle but these companies have also made a conscious effort to consider women.

Telco Singtel, where three out of nine board members are women, said diversity is essential to maintaining a competitive advantage, and it conducts periodic "health checks" to ensure healthy board gender-diversity ratios.

However, it does not have a quota on gender diversity. "We have at least one female member on our board nominations committee and we will always consider female candidates if there are board vacancies," noted Singtel group chief executive Chua Sock Koong. She added that the ability to draw upon a diverse collection of skills and experiences has led to better execution of the firm's business strategies.

DBS Bank, meanwhile, noted that board diversity provides a wider range of views and expertise, which helps board members better identify possible risks, pose challenging questions and contribute to problem-solving.

Two of the bank's nine board members are women: Ms Euleen Goh and Mrs Ow Foong Pheng.

"As women represent half of our customer base, the board believes that it is important to have adequate female representation on the board," said a DBS spokesman.

A Diversity Action Committee report showed that 57 women were appointed to boards last year, down from 75 in 2015.

Two of the directors appointed last year were at SingPost, Mrs Fang Ai Lian and Ms Elizabeth Kong. There are three female directors at the postal service firm, including Ms Aliza Knox.

"A wide range of perspectives is critical for an effective board. Gender is but one aspect of diversity," SingPost said.

Women's representation on boards of listed companies here has improved in the last four years, but the pace has been agonisingly slow. They accounted for 9.7 per cent of board seats as at June 2016, up from 9.5 per cent in 2015, 8.8 per cent in 2014 and 8.3 per cent in 2013.

Despite the rising awareness of gender diversity, 52.5 per cent of boards of 751 listed firms here are all male as at last June, a marginal uptick from 52.4 per cent in 2015.

Singapore Institute of Directors (SID) chairman Willie Cheng told The Straits Times: "There are some low-hanging fruit right now because about more than half the boards are all male. I think getting one woman on each board isn't a big stretch.

"Obviously we don't just want one woman on board, you do need some strength in numbers as well."

Four firms with all-male boards - Genting Singapore, Global Logistic Properties (GLP), Wilmar International and Golden Agri-Resources - were cited by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu at an SID event last Thursday.

Contacted by The Straits Times on Friday, Wilmar said while its board is supportive of gender diversity, its view is that it "should not be the main selection criterion".

"Board appointments based on the right blend of skills, ability to contribute effectively and experience relevant to Wilmar's business should remain a priority," a spokesman noted.

Genting Singapore, Golden Agri-Resources and GLP declined comment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'Companies benefit from board diversity, say bosses'. Print Edition | Subscribe