WOMEN are still woefully under-represented on the boards of Singapore listed companies, according to findings by a task force set up to address the issue.

As of April last year, only 8.3 per cent of listed company directorships were held by women, a survey by the recently formed Diversity Task Force found.

This was far fewer than in some other advanced economies such as Australia at 17.3 per cent, and Britain at 19 per cent.

It was also fewer than in Asian economies such as Malaysia at 8.7 per cent, China at 9 per cent and Hong Kong at 9.4 per cent.

Other studies in recent years had also found female representation rates in Singapore languishing at around the current level.

The latest survey, which polled 300 Singapore listed companies, also found that 57 per cent of boards here were all male.

The Diversity Task Force was set up in 2012 in response to concerns about female under-representation in top corporate positions. It was initiated by Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob when she was minister of state for the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

The task force, comprising private sector and women's groups members, is expected to release a report and recommendations for businesses and the Government by the end of next month.

Mrs Mildred Tan, chairman of the task force, said companies can benefit from having a more diverse board. "With the manpower shortage and an ageing population, tapping the under-utilised pool of talented women in Singapore could give companies a competitive edge," said Mrs Tan, who is also managing director of Ernst & Young Advisory.

Making board gender diversity a business imperative will also help to build shareholder confidence, she added.

Without regulatory intervention, the task force estimates that the percentage of women directors will grow to a mere 12 per cent in 2020 and 17 per cent in 2030, it said yesterday.

The survey findings showed companies are not yet convinced of the benefits of a diverse board, and that few have taken measures to tip the gender imbalance.

Only a third of companies polled agreed that gender diversity at board level is important, and a mere 4 per cent said shortlisted candidates for the board have to include at least one woman.

Factors contributing to the lack of board gender diversity include a perceived lack of qualified female candidates, with 43 per cent of firms polled citing that as a stumbling block to appointing more female board members.

Firms also rely excessively on personal networks to recruit directors - 89 per cent of companies said they have used this method, with 42 per cent recruiting only from their personal networks.

"The reality is that boards recruit based on their network of acquaintances, and many board members tend to move in circles that don't include professional women," said Mr Adrian Chan, vice-chairman of the Singapore Institute of Directors.

Women also tend to be more reluctant than men to take up board positions, the task force said.

"Women are less likely to put themselves forward or are more likely to feel that they may not be adequately qualified for a director 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," it said.

The majority - 73 per cent - of companies surveyed said there should not be a quota imposed on the number of female board members, as directors should be hired based on merit.

Respondents preferred putting in place measures to broaden the search and nomination process for potential board candidates, and implementing initiatives to identify potential directors.

Companies should cast the net wider and hire the best person for the job regardless of gender, said Mr Chan.

"There are definitely enough women candidates out there - it is a matter of getting boards to be open-minded enough to consider them," he said.