Diversity in the workforce has an increasingly global relevance, but there is much debate both here in Singapore and abroad about how it can best be achieved in business.

In its Hays Journal, recruitment specialist Hays examines how gender quotas are very much the public face of the diversity agenda, but many organisations remain sceptical about their effectiveness when it comes to driving performance, change and share value.

Some organisations fear that a box-ticking approach to recruitment is not compatible with the aim of acquiring the very best talent.

Others say that set quotas harm the notion of promotion on merit, can lead to “tokenism” and can simply result in the same women taking on more boardroom roles, rather than bringing in new blood at higher levels.

Same old faces

For example, in January 2008, Norway imposed 40 per cent gender quotas on boardrooms.

But as one senior human resource executive said to Hays Journal: “Anecdotally, the experience of Norway is that it has not gone well.

 “They’ve just got the same women moving around and taking on more boardroom positions. It has not solved the problem of why there are not more women in business.”

Other critics of the Norwegian experiment like to point out that many female directors appointed since 2003 only hold non-executive roles, while the mandatory requirements disguise a lack of female managers in the country.

Nevertheless, Ms Elin Hurvenes, founder of Norway’s Professional Boards Forum, said: “A lot of chairmen and investors were deeply opposed to quotas when they were introduced.

“The feedback from the conference (of Norwegian business leaders and politicians to assess the effects of the quotas) was that while they were still opposed to the idea in principle, they were in fact very happy with the results. So it was a mixed message.”

Beyond quotas

Yet the perception remains that not enough is being done to promote gender diversity.

In a recent Hays survey, 62 per cent of over 300 Singaporean respondents thought organisations do not do enough to help women reach the top or that more could be done.

Quotas aside, without a genuine engagement and willingness to embrace diversity and inclusion when it comes to hiring and promotion, organisations risk falling into tunnel-visioned “groupthink”.

But inclusion goes beyond gender box-ticking.

If employers are actively encouraged to seek out candidates who will bring different perspectives and ways of problem-solving to the mix, the net result would be that more women — as well as those from more varied cultural backgrounds — would hold senior roles.

This puts the focus on the benefits diversity can bring to a business.

The business case is compelling — in March, a global poll of 241 companies by law firm Eversheds concluded that there was a clear correlation between smaller, more diverse and more independent boardrooms and share price performance and company success.

A genuine engagement and willingness to embrace diversity and inclusion when it comes to recruitment and promotion leads to the business benefit of different ways of thinking.

But sometimes, it can require a shove from above, such as quotas, to encourage employers to make diversity a reality.

But it is important that organisations also focus on mentoring young women to help them to aspire to senior management and board positions.

Lack of female managers

It is disappointing to see a lack of female managers across the board as these positions are the initial stepping stones women will take to drive their career towards higher promotion paths.

As with high-performing male talent in an organisation, women need to be identified and encouraged by being given the same opportunities to develop their skills and experience to prepare them for a life at the top. 

Hays advises companies to start the development process early and establish steering groups, active mentorships and coaching or networking programmes to allow women to discuss ideas, plan their career path, access career development and settle into new roles. 

The latest Hays Journal also offers insights into other interesting business performance topics including the role of human resource in transforming organisations, workforce planning, the use of psychometric tools and the future of regional China’s workforce.