THE dismally low number of women on corporate boards here grew even worse over the last year, a new report has found.

But women in Singapore are making some cracks in the glass ceiling, according to the latest Credit Suisse Research Institute report. Female representation in some leadership positions fared well. At the heavy-hitting chief executive level, for instance, the Republic topped all Asian markets and was the third-highest globally after Portugal and Belgium. 

The CS Gender 3,000: Women In Senior Management report assesses board structures across more than 3,000 companies from 40 countries.

It found that female representation on Singapore company boards dropped from 8.6 per cent in 2012 to 7.9 per cent last year - well below the global average of 12.9 per cent. The level was the same as that recorded in 2010.

The share of women in chief executive positions here, on the other hand, was 15 per cent last year - significantly higher than the global average of 3.9 per cent.

And a hefty 41.2 per cent of the chief financial officer and strategy roles here were held by women.

Globally, women make up just 3.9 per cent of chief executives, 8.5 per cent of operations, 17.5 per cent of those in chief financial officer or strategy roles, and 18.9 per cent in shared services such as those relating to human resources, legal functions, information technology and external relations.

The findings dovetail with one of the study's conclusions that quotas and targets for board-level participation may not necessarily improve female participation in senior management more broadly.

Since 2012, companies with at least one female director have outperformed in terms of share price by 5 per cent, said the report. 

The report also found that since 2005, companies with at least one woman on the board of directors have seen an average payout ratio of 39 per cent, compared with 32 per cent at companies with no female directors.

It noted that firms with more than 15 per cent of women in top management have a net debt-to-equity ratio of 57 per cent, compared with 35 per cent at those with fewer than 10 per cent of women in top management.

The report also suggested policy initiatives to help women move beyond mid-management levels, including legislative support, education in how science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects are taught, and regulation for diversity in firms.

"The CS 3000 gives compelling evidence that gender diversity on boards and in senior management is strongly linked to higher returns on equity, better shareholder returns and stronger valuations," said Mr Giles Keating, deputy global chief information officer of private banking and wealth management at Credit Suisse.

"And we show that gender diversity is improving, but still woefully low in many companies. The challenge now is to accelerate this change and extend it to broader areas of cultural diversity."