MARCH 8 marked International Women’s Day, which celebrates women’s achievements in societies around the world. As the pool of educated women grows, society is becoming increasingly aware of their impact on the global economy.

Women who take up new board directorships today appear to have substantial qualifications — specifically, MBAs (Master of Business Administration degrees) — and managerial experience.

They often have more multiple sector experience and international experience than their male peers. It is no wonder that gender diversity features more often at the top of corporate agendas.

Today, there are increasing opportunities for women to advance their careers. Apart from MBA qualifications, a finance education also offers a clear career path for women, especially in professional services firms.

A recent report by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) titled Women In Finance: A Springboard To Corporate Board Positions?, suggests that companies may be more positively disposed to appointing women to board positions if they have a financial background or qualification.

Finance was cited as the “language” of the boardroom, and having the ability to communicate financial information established and built credibility. This view was expressed by executive search consultants and existing chairmen of boards interviewed for the report.

It cites that while a certain level of financial acumen is necessary for all board directors, for women, having a finance qualification or functional background helps to break down some persistent stereotypes about their competence. It gives them credibility, legitimacy and a common language that allows them to join the conversation of the boards.

Too few in Singapore

Historical trends in board memberships of companies, however, still show a distinct gender bias, and the Singapore Board Gender Diversity Report 2012 highlighted that the proportion of women on boards in Singapore continues to be extremely low at 7.3 per cent — lagging behind Asia-Pacific places such as Australia, China and Hong Kong.

While recent developments like the inclusion of gender diversity in the Code of Corporate Governance in 2012 are a welcome change, it is time to move beyond quotas. Companies need to embed into their culture the promotion of women’s career progress across different layers within the organisation.

This requires a pragmatic and gradual approach — enlisting more women directors will help spur diversity across many levels. In leadership positions, these women will serve as role models for future aspiring female directors.

In Singapore, more than half of ACCA members are females. Many have notable positions as chief financial officers in leading global companies across a diverse range of industries including finance and audit, pharmaceuticals and health care.

This is in addition to non-traditionally “female-friendly” sectors such as oil and gas, mining, aerospace, and building and construction.

Women are particularly well represented in finance functions in Singapore and one reason is that the education system and environment offers various opportunities to gain portable, attractive qualifications in accounting and finance.

Clear career paths offered by professional service firms also make this career choice an attractive one for women. It is worthwhile to note that women in finance functions feel they are more likely to get a job after a career break than their non-accounting and finance counterparts.

The ACCA report concluded that a range of capabilities and competencies are needed by all individuals aiming for a board-level position. These include knowledge, motivation and access to networks.

Women who choose non-finance functions should recognise the need to be able to prove significant financial literacy, for example, by taking on profit-and-loss roles, if they aspire to board directorships.

The importance of networks cannot be stressed enough. Women who lack access to key organisational contacts, and those excluded from important networks because of their gender, have reduced chances of assuming a position on the board of a company.

Social ties give an indication of a woman’s capabilities that serve to reassure nomination committee members, and being known by key players in the appointments process can help to confirm her suitability for a board role.