More women needed on company boards in Singapore and globally: Panel

Women now occupy 17.6 per cent of board seats in the top 100 primary-listed companies here. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Not enough women have a seat at the table in boardrooms here and around the world, and the pace must be picked up on efforts to get more women into leadership roles, said participants at a panel discussion on Tuesday (June 1).

The panel was held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of BoardAgender, an initiative under the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations that aims to raise greater awareness of the need for gender balance in businesses and boards.

Ms Georgette Tan, president of United Women Singapore, said in her opening address to a virtual audience: "Slowly and surely, we're getting the numbers and we're moving in the right direction.

"But we also recognise that much more work needs to be done. We are only just getting started. If the first 10 years were about defining and shedding light on the issue, then we need to now... with a sense of urgency, accelerate the speed at which we provide women with the opportunity and access and elevate them into boardrooms."

To this end, BoardAgender launched an inaugural mentoring programme for aspiring women directors. Later this month, 10 board-ready women will be mentored by 10 seasoned board directors in a specially curated six-month programme.

Panellist Piyush Gupta, DBS chief executive and director, noted that Singapore has fallen short of its target to have 20 per cent share of board seats for women by 2020.

Women now occupy 17.6 per cent of board seats in the top 100 primary-listed companies here.

The figure is better for statutory boards, at 27.5 per cent, and goes up to 28.8 per cent for the top 100 institutions of a public character.

Mr Gupta said: "We have some culture challenges. For one, there are many family-owned businesses in this part of the world and by their nature, have very patriarchal arrangements."

He noted that men can go beyond just being allies to be sponsors who actively push for board diversity.

"There's an active role for government support and people pressure," he said.

"Another group that is powerful are investors. The clout of investors in bringing environmental, social and governance aspects forward has been powerful in the last few years and we have to get them more engaged with the diversity agenda."

Fellow panellist Ann Cairns, Mastercard's executive vice-chair, added that global data supports the case for board diversity.

She cited a McKinsey study showing that companies that have more gender diversity on executive teams are more likely to have better-than-average profitability than companies that have less gender diversity.

"The data is out there and that is what the investors are looking at when they say they want change because they think it will make the companies perform better and be more sustainable," she said.

Lendlease group non-executive director Nicola Wakefield Evans added that having diversity brings a firm many benefits.

"You need to have women in leadership to be able to recruit a diverse array of employees, so I think that's really important if you want to get the best and brightest women into your organisation," she said.

"Women, particularly the younger generation, are discarding companies where they can't see the possibility for advancement because there are no women at the top."

Mr Gupta added that women have different experiences and can bring those perspectives to a firm's board.

In terms of diversity, Singapore also needs to have more women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, he said.

DBS said it will have more than 140 engineering jobs on offer specifically for women at a virtual career fair this month. Roles included engineering lead, solution architect and full stack developer.

"We created a support system for women engineers in the company. Role modelling is very important. When they see other women doing well, then they feel they can do that too."

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