EconomicAffairs

How queen bees and old boys' clubs preserve glass ceilings

Women are still a small minority on company boards here. What's holding them back and what needs to change?

The race for the highest political office in America ended on Nov 8 with the stunning defeat of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Her loss despite being the favourite to win was due to a mix of factors, many of which political pundits are still analysing, but as Mrs Clinton said in a speech a few days later, her defeat meant that in the United States at least, "we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling". She expressed her hope that "someday someone will - and hopefully sooner than we might think right now".

Women have made huge strides towards equality with their male counterparts, but in the upper echelons of both politics and business, they still lag far behind. This piece focuses on gender diversity in corporate boardrooms, an issue in the spotlight of late after Singapore's Diversity Action Committee (DAC) released new findings.

HARDER ON OWN SEX
In its latest report, the DAC - set up in 2014 to improve female board representation - said such representation has risen from 8 per cent in 2012 to 9.7 per cent as at the end of June this year.

Singapore lags behind developed countries such as Britain, where female board representation has reached 21.9 per cent. It is 12.1 per cent in Hong Kong and 10.2 per cent in Malaysia.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO

The typical board member in Singapore today is a tertiary-educated man aged over 50 with fewer than five years as a director under his belt. Lack of experience is thus no barrier. What then explains the gender divide?

Culture seems to be a big factor.

Private equity investor and entrepreneur Ng Shin Ein, who sits on the boards of four listed companies as well as NTUC FairPrice and Singapore International Foundation, said Singapore is still very conservative. "The old boys' club is incredibly strong, powerful and insular in Singapore," she said, adding: "The ceiling is real and women, no matter how sound they may be professionally, have found it difficult to break into such networks."

But women can also be their own worst enemies.

TSMP Law Corp joint managing director Stefanie Yuen Thio said: "It does not help that women are also harder on others of their sex. We tend to have a 'I did it the hard way; you should too' mindset when it comes to helping other women in their career path."

So prevalent is this attitude, sociologists have coined a phrase to describe women who live by it: "queen bees". These are women leaders who are less likely to help other women advance. At the other end are the "righteous women", who make the advancement of other women a priority.

In a commentary for Project Syndicate penned in the wake of Mrs Clinton's defeat, political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter and journalist Jay Newton-Small described German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May as queen bees, and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and Mrs Clinton as righteous women.

Yet another factor blocking Singapore women's ascent to the top rungs of the corporate ladder is the business community's lack of interest in gender issues.

Singapore women clearly feel weighed down. In a report in September, advisory firm Willis Towers Watson and its partner, The Economist Corporate Network, found "perceptions of a glass ceiling were most prevalent in Singapore", compared with other cities in Asia.

Ms Yuen Thio doubted that "the business community really believes that gender diversity makes that much of a difference to the bottom line". She added: "Until and unless corporate head honchos see the real difference to profits that women in top management can make, women will continue to be window dressing in the board room."

Singapore women clearly feel weighed down. In a report in September, advisory firm Willis Towers Watson and its partner, The Economist Corporate Network, found "perceptions of a glass ceiling were most prevalent in Singapore", compared with other cities in Asia. Some 63 per cent of respondents here believe a glass ceiling exists and holds back women's prospects in their firm, compared with 45 per cent in Kuala Lumpur and 36 per cent in Hong Kong.

DOES IT MATTER?
The view that diversity is good for business has gained ground, but it is not always possible to establish a causal link between women in leadership positions and corporate performance. MSCI ESG Research - which studies environmental, social and governance-related business practices - does not attempt to posit such a link, but noted in its analysis that "academic research in management and social psychology has long shown that groups with a more diverse composition tended to be more innovative and made better decisions".

On the upsides to business performance, Swiss private bank UBS noted that from 2011 to last year, a gender-focused portfolio of companies that it drew up beat the MSCI World Index by two percentage points a year.

The Peterson Institute for International Economics found in a study of almost 22,000 firms in 91 countries that "for profitable firms, a move from no female leaders to 30 per cent representation is associated with a 15 per cent increase in the net revenue margin".

And yet, the higher up one goes on the corporate ladder, the smaller the percentage of women, according to non-profit organisation LeanIn.Org, founded by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. In a report released with consulting firm McKinsey in September, the two found that, on average, women are promoted and hired at lower rates than men.

"Promotion rates for women lag behind those of men, and the disparity is largest at the first step up to manager - for every 100 women promoted, 130 men are promoted," they said. These findings were based on data from 132 companies and more than 34,000 men and women in the US.

Women filled 33 per cent of senior manager roles, 24 per cent of senior vice-presidents and 19 per cent of C-suite executives in the corporate pipeline this year, they said.

WHY CHANGE?
The average consumer in Singapore may care little about gender diversity on corporate boards as long as they can buy the goods and services they want or make investments, but Parliament Speaker Halimah Yacob said the issue does matter "from a policy and macroeconomic perspective because you want to strengthen the governance of boards". She is adviser to the DAC, which has warned firms here that investors may be turned off if women continue to be under-represented.

"Companies in Singapore risk their leadership being viewed as less competitive on the global market, especially with investors who measure a company's future performance by the perceived quality of its board and management," the DAC said.

It has made five recommendations to spur change in the right direction. They include improving the Code of Corporate Governance for listed firms so as to require them to disclose details such as their diversity policy and objectives, and for firms to develop their executive pipeline to increase the pool of women for board roles.

However, the DAC stopped short of recommending quotas, which many corporate leaders here are against.

Ms Ng, the private equity investor, said: "A quota achieves nothing - women will still not be taken seriously if they are on boards as a token."

While acknowledging that quotas are an easy way to get quick results, Ms Yuen Thio said they are also "a sure-fire way to devalue our contributions and to belittle our hard-won professional equality".

Singapore Airlines chairman Stephen Lee told the DAC that companies will find ways to get around quotas.

Still, quotas are one way to get people to pay attention to the issue. Ms Teo Swee Lian, Singtel independent director and former deputy managing director at the Monetary Authority of Singapore, said that if change "takes too long or if there really isn't enough awareness in the minds of people, then the threat of a quota might actually be a catalyst that's needed".

As for the DAC's call for firms to develop an executive pipeline, it specified that board training should be incorporated into talent development programmes, and suggested mentoring and sponsorship programmes for both male and female executives.

As with any change that shakes up the status quo, ultimately, what matters is leadership.

That is the view of Dr Koen Wilms, vice-president of Asia at 3M, a diversified conglomerate that is best known as the maker of Post-it notes. He said: "We need to set the tone at the top and we've a strong chief executive who believes in diversity. I've been working for 30 years now and I see the value we get from diversity, not just women leadership."

At 3M worldwide, 25 per cent of leadership positions are filled by women, and the firm has a target to double that by 2025.

Its Singapore board has 13 seats, and seven are occupied by women - a number which doubled in five years.

So it does seem that where there is corporate will, there is a way.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'How queen bees and old boys' clubs preserve glass ceilings'. Print Edition | Subscribe