Boardroom diversity more crucial

Besides gender, varied backgrounds, experience also vital in board picks

Boardroom diversity more crucial

THE recent International Women's Day invoked much soul-searching on how few boardrooms here have female directors.

Women account for just under 7 per cent of all directorships in the largest 100 listed companies here. The results lag those of Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and even Malaysia, said a recent study led by the National University of Singapore Business School.

Most boards here are dominated by men from similar backgrounds. Many directors of leading firms know, or know of, each other, reinforcing the perception that getting appointed to a board is like being admitted to a select club.

But diversity is important and boards could do with more women directors.

Mr Mark Lee, director of Templar International Consultants, an executive search firm, said: 'One of the key reasons for bringing in female board members is for companies to fully represent - at board level - their customer base and audiences.

'This means that bringing females in as board members is not just the right thing to do - but is a decision that makes good business sense and that can give a company a competitive edge.'

There are also other indirect benefits to having more women in the boardroom. PricewaterhouseCoopers Singapore's human capital partner, Ms Deborah Ong, said their presence will help the organisation provide positive role models.

They can act as informal mentors as they interact with women in management while contributing to a progressive overall corporate culture, she added.

But at the risk of ruling myself out of ever sealing that coveted board seat, I am not that hung up about whether there are more women or not on corporate boards.

Women want to be appointed on their own merit. They do not want their presence to be seen as a token appointment or just making up the numbers so that a company can tick the boxes.

Calling for more female representation can sometimes blur the lines between ability and an agenda.

Neither does having more women always translate to having a wider range of views than on an all-male board.

Many top women leaders would also have gone to elite schools, or come from fairly well-off backgrounds. These women who have climbed the corporate ladder the tough way could well have the same perspectives on issues as their male counterparts.

Much has also been made of women bringing more perspective to companies in certain industries, say in consumer goods. That may be true but it is also a view that ends up pigeonholing women too. Why wouldn't a woman's perspective be useful in a top engineering firm as well?

Given the growing proportion of women in the workplace, as well as the large number of chief executive officers or women running their own businesses, the proportion is bound to shift eventually.

Consider just two examples: Standard Chartered Bank Singapore's former chief executive Euleen Goh who now sits on various boards, and Mrs Fang Ai Lian, who headed accounting firm Ernst & Young here and now is the chairman of Great Eastern.

With a growing number of leading female lawyers, accountants and bankers, the ranks of directorships will naturally fill out with women in the years to come.

But diversity should encompass more than gender and attention should be paid to getting other stakeholder groups onto corporate boards.

There have been suggestions to allow minority shareholders to choose a director. This could see more unorthodox choices such as a retail investor or retiree joining the ranks of the elite.

Other relevant criteria could include race or even age. A key factor should be a varied background or experience, something that deserves more airtime in any debate about diversity on the board.

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