Glass ceiling lower for Singapore's women, unless we change

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Singapore business is male-dominated in boardrooms. A Diversity Task Force survey just published showed that 57 per cent of 300 publicly-listed companies here had all male boards (the select group in each company that directs policy). Only 8.3 per cent of listed company directorships were held by women – lower than not only Australia (17 per cent) and Britain (19 per cent) but also Hong Kong (9.4 per cent), China (nine per cent) and Malaysia (8.7 per cent).

An earlier report this month, by Grant Thornton International Business found that Singapore firms were among the least enthusiastic about putting women at the apex of their corporate structure. Female leaders given the most senior roles dropped to 23 per cent in this year’s study, down from 27 per cent last year, research from the Report showed.

This is below the global average of 24 per cent, which was unchanged from a year ago. Compared with 10 years ago when 19 per cent of women were in senior management, the proportion is up by just five percentage points.

On a global scale, Singapore is ranked 33 out of 45 economies Grant Thornton surveyed.

Russia was the most advanced in this regard, with 43 per cent of its senior business roles held by women, followed by Indonesia (41 per cent). South-east Asian nations like Thailand (38 per cent), Vietnam (26 per cent) and Malaysia (25 per cent) also ranked ahead of Singapore in promoting women to top posts.

Japan was the worst among the economies surveyed, with only nine per cent of women able to break the glass ceiling in the corporate jungle. Switzerland (13 per cent), the United Kingdom (20 per cent) and the United States (22 per cent) also fared relatively poorly.

About four in 10 firms here do not have a woman in senior roles, a rise from last year’s 23 per cent.

So why are there so few women on the boards of Singapore listed companies?

The Diversity survey showed that 43 per cent of companies said there weren’t enough qualified female candidates; that plus the tendency for male directors to “rely excessively” on personal networks (89 per cent do this, and 42 per cent only use such networks). So golfing. fishing or poker-playing or lunching groups are important.

The masculine mindset becomes even more worrying: only a third of companies said that gender diversification was important and a mere four per cent said that shortlisted candidates for the board should include at least one woman.

An earlier report this month It found that Singapore firms are among the least enthusiastic about putting women at the apex of their corporate structure. Female leaders given the most senior roles have dropped to 23 per cent in this year’s study, down from 27 per cent last year, research from the Grant Thornton International Business Report showed.

This is below the global average of 24 per cent, which was unchanged from a year ago. Compared with 10 years ago when 19 per cent of women were in senior management, the proportion is up by just five percentage points.

On a global scale, Singapore is ranked 33 out of 45 economies surveyed.

Russia was the most advanced in this regard, with 43 per cent of its senior business roles held by women, followed by Indonesia (41 per cent). South-east Asian nations like Thailand (38 per cent), Vietnam (26 per cent) and Malaysia (25 per cent) also ranked ahead of Singapore in promoting women to top posts.

Japan was the worst among the economies surveyed, with only 9 per cent of women able to break the glass ceiling in the corporate jungle. Switzerland (13 per cent), the United Kingdom (20 per cent) and the United States (22 per cent) also fared relatively poorly.

About four in 10 firms here do not have a woman in senior roles, a rise from last year’s 23 per cent.

Why is the imbalance an issue?

Why is such an old-age mindset worrying? According to Adrian Chan, vice-chairman of the Singapore Institute of Directors who was quoted in The Straits Times: “The reality is that boards recruit based on their network of personal acquaintances and many board members tend to move in circles that don’t include professional women.”

In a Deloitte publication, Women in the Boardroom: A Global Perspective published in November 2011, Scandinavian business leader Liselott Kilaas wrote: “More women should sit on company boards because board diversity is required more than ever. With the wave of globalisation, tackling unanticipated competition and understanding new and different cultures and business climates have become imperative even in the most mundane of businesses. In several respects, the old company “universe” has exploded in size and complexity; severely stretching the skills, experience and insights of the board. More women should sit on boards because of the evolving role of the corporate board.

“The key word here is corporate governance and a redefinition of what constitutes good practice in this respect. In essence, the scope of the board ́s oversight has increased significantly. Further, the processes by which the oversight is being exercised have become better defined and more rigorous. All of this requires a broader skill set and wider perspective in the board. Again, there is an implied need for more board diversity.”

What is the difficulty of finding suitable women?

Against Ms Klass’ view, the Singapore survey showed that “women are more reluctant than men to take up board positions. Women are less likely to put themselves forward or are more likely to feel they may not be adequately qualified for a director’s or senior management role. Men are seen to be more assertive in putting themselves forward, even if they do not meet all the requirements of a role.”

A National University of Singapore Business School study, “Singapore Board Diversity Report 2012: The Female Factor” showed  that 94.1 per cent of female directors held only one directorship and that women were less likely to hold multiple directorships as compared to men. If there was a warning signal, from the NUS study, it is that Japan scored the lowest among countries where there were women directors — 1.1 per cent (worse than in the Grant Thornton survey). It augurs poorly for that country’s economy.

The NUS study also showed that family firms had more female directors, often founding family members. It said that 10.3 per cent of Temasek-linked SGX-listed companies has female board members as against 7.3 per cent (2012 figures) of SGX-listed companies. Moreover, 19.8 per cent of statutory board positions and 16.9 per cent of the chairs were held by women, compared with 7.3 per cent and 3.9 per cent in listed companies. (Temasek Holdings is the government-owned investment company, headed by Ho Ching, the prime minister’s wife. Three other prominent businesswomen in Singapore listed by Forbes in February 2013 are: Jennie Chua of Beeswax, Chua Sock Koong who heads SingTel and Olivia Lum, who founded Hyflux.)

The male-dominance of listed companies’ boards is unlikely to change without legislative requirement, going by the contradictory remarks of Adrian Chan (based on 73 per cent of companies in the Diversity survey saying there should be no quota on the number of female board members. First, he said that appointments should be based on merit (which is not the current practice). Then he says: “There are definitely enough women candidates out there — it is  a matter of getting boards to be open-minded enough to consider them.” Which brings the issue back to Square One.