S’pore CEO: The boards of S’pore companies need more women ASAP

Women occupy only 1.76 seats out of every 10 seats on the boards of Singapore’s top 100 companies.

Abel Ang | October 16, 2021, 12:21 PM

COMMENTARY: Why aren’t there more women on Singapore boards?

Writing for Lessons on Leadership, a new series hoping to inspire the next generation of Singaporeans through the stories of Singapore’s many successful business leaders and entrepreneurs, Abel Ang writes about the lack of gender diversity in Singapore's top 100 companies.

Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Business School.

With women occupying only 1.76 seats out of every 10 seats on the boards of Singapore’s top 100 companies, Singapore’s position is one of the lowest in the world.

According to statistics compiled by the Council for board Diversity, Singapore ranks ninth out of 11, ahead only of traditionally male dominated societies like Hong Kong and Japan.

Council for the Board of Diversity. Statistics as of Dec. 2020.

Do we have the drive to succeed in getting women onto listed company boards? It appears that the right people are involved.

President Halimah Yacob is the patron of the CBD, along with 21 distinguished council members, co-chaired by the CEO of the Singapore Exchange, and the Chairperson of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Center.

The Council for Board Diversity (CBD) was established by the Ministry of Social and Family Development “to promote a sustained increase in the number of women on boards of listed companies, statutory boards and non-profit organisations.” It succeeded the previous Diversity Action Committee which focused on increasing women’s participation on corporate boards.

The CBD, and its earlier predecessor, made solid progress in its earlier years. Between 2013-2018, the number of women sitting on the top 100 boards doubled to 1.5 seats for every 10 board positions.

Unfortunately, the pace has since slowed over the last three years, with women getting only an additional quarter seat in that time.

Surely more can be done?

The 20 by 20 goal that was not met

The CBD had previously announced that it had an intermediate target for women to take up 20 per cent of all the board seats in Singapore’s top 100 companies by 2020.

The “20 by 20” goal had been set by the predecessor organization of the CBD but was adopted by the CBD when it was formed in 2019. At the time, the CBD had admitted that the target would be a challenge.

In January 2019, the patron for the council, President Halimah Yacob said, “we all acknowledge it is still a challenge for us to reach the first-tier target of 20 per cent by the end of next year, and further effort is necessary.” As predicted, the goal was not met.

The onset of COVID-19 around the world has not helped the issue, with boards focused on running operating businesses and mitigating setbacks arising from the global pandemic.

Perhaps as Singapore positions itself to move out of the pandemic, there is scope for a substantial push to hit the 20 per cent of board seats for women figure?

One might ask, what is the gap, and what needs to be done? Using data provided by the CBD, at the end of 2020, there were 860 board seats in the top 100 companies in Singapore, of which 151 of those seats were occupied by women. To get to the 20 per cent target, we need just 21 additional seats for women on the boards of Singapore’s top 100 companies.

While the progress on the top 100 companies has been slow, there has been progress made in other quarters of the corporate landscape of gender diversity.

The most progress has been made in terms of the diversity of women on the boards of statutory boards, which is just shy of the goal of women occupying three out of every ten board seats of statutory board boards.

CBD’s suggestions

Since the goal of “20 by 20” has lapsed, perhaps there is scope to put 21 more women on the boards of the top companies in Singapore by 2022?

The phrase for the new target for the CBD could be “21 [additional women on Singapore boards] by 22.”

The gap can be closed by implementing two of CBD’s suggestions:

1) For each of the 18 companies in the top 100 who still do not have a female board member – to add one female director. Many of these companies continue to resist adding a woman to their board after years of cajoling from various quarters, even the CBD. Perhaps it is time to up the ante and to compel these public companies to do the right thing in a much more forceful way?

2) For each of the 43 top 100 companies with at least one independent director that has served longer than nine years, renew that board member with a woman.

Some concerted effort on any of these fronts would get us the 21 board seats for women to meet the target by the end of 2022.

These steps go beyond a simplistic quota for women on boards and speak to a genuine and collective ground up effort by our top Singapore companies to correct gender imbalance at board level.

Why aren’t there more women on boards?

In an article published in the Straits Times in April, AWARE suggests that there is a glass ceiling which is keeping women from making it into board positions. Other factors that further exacerbate this glass ceiling include: gender stereotypes, lack of exposure, and family responsibilities that women have. All these factors lead to a shortage of viable women candidates for boards to choose from.

Besides the shortage of suitable women candidates, the working environment on some boards also makes it uncomfortable for a woman board member to participate fully.

As an example, years ago I witnessed board activities where male board members made crude jokes and comments, while a woman board member was present. Before I could raise my voice on this topic, the woman board member elegantly stopped the jokes and comments in their tracks.

One wonders why she even had to do so – especially in an age of #MeToo. Is this a larger symptom of some Singapore boards being at the bottom of the class – which Singapore’s rank position in CBD’s own table would indicate?

Why diversity is important

There are many other reasons to bring gender diversity to Singapore boards, but perhaps the most important reason is that it is long overdue for Singapore boards to undergo a cultural and gender transformation — for women to have their seat at the board table.

The research on the need for gender diversity as one of the ways for companies to navigate the increasingly volatile and chaotic macroenvironment is clear. Gender diversity is good for board and company performance.

According to McKinsey, companies that have greater gender diversity on their boards are able to attract more talented employees, have a better understanding of their customer base, and make higher quality decisions.

At the medical device company that I lead, we started the journey towards cultural and gender transformation, by bringing a woman onto a previously all-male-private company board, four years ago.

Before that, the company was also led by an all-male board.

All it took was for a board Member to raise the matter. The board quickly rallied behind this suggestion. The process to identify, select and appoint the female director did not take long, and the female independent director now chairs the audit and risk Committee of the board - one of the most important committees on a board.

At the same company, we have also taken the further step of injecting women into our portfolio company boards to create additional opportunities for women to build their capability and take on first time board positions.

Despite what has been done, I continue to believe that we need to do even more, and we strive to push the gender diversity envelope forward at every level of the organization.

Given Singapore’s drive to excel, I do hope that the CBD Council will put its weight and energy behind the proposed 21 by 22 goal. This could signal the Council’s drive to succeed at helping women take their seat at the board table, by getting an additional 21 women onto Singapore’s top 100 boards by the end of next year.

Top photo from Pixabay/Via Pexels.