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Bridging ‘evident gender gap’ in leadership: Experts in Singapore urge women to dig into life purpose, step up and be ‘shameless’

By end-2025, Singapore expects to see 25 per cent of women on the boards of its top 100 listed companies and 30 per cent “ASAP” on that of statutory boards and Institutions of a Public Character (IPCs).

According to the Council for Board Diversity (CBD), the top 100 primary-listed companies had women holding 21.5 per cent of board seats at the end of 2022, while statutory boards and IPCs both surpassed their targets, according to a CBD 2022 annual report. Additionally, the appointment of women to first-time company directorship also reached a record high of 45 per cent.

But tough questions remain.

For one, female representation in senior leadership – that is, those assuming C-suite roles – remains stagnant at a rough 20 per cent on average across the board, according to a 2022 analysis by top accounting firm Deloitte.  

For a medium-sized company, the ratio of women to men assuming roles such as chief executive officer and chief financial officer is around 2:8 and for larger firms, 4:17, based on the report.

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In specific sectors, such as STEM, there is still an “evident gender gap”, said Feon Ang, the Asia-Pacific managing director at LinkedIn.

Citing LinkedIn data, Ang said only 37 per cent of entry-level STEM positions in Singapore are held by women and the representation of women in C-level positions is “at a slow 14.5 per cent”. That’s about one woman for every 10 senior male leaders in a medium-sized STEM organisation.

Ang also pointed to the figures in the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Gender Gap Report.

According to the report, it will take 131 years to close the gender gap globally at the current rate – only slightly better than the 132 years cited in the 2022 version of the same report.

For context, Singapore ranks at number 49 in terms of achieving full gender parity – same as in 2022. Within Asia-Pacific, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines remain ahead, ranking at 26, 4 and 16 respectively.

And diversity cannot be achieved when one or more of these attributes is not sufficiently represented. In other words, mere tokenism does not make an effective board.

“Tokenism can impact inclusivity,” said LinkedIn’s Ang.

“When individuals are included solely for optics or to meet a quota, diverse voices may not be genuinely valued or integrated into organisations and society.

“It’s not sufficient to just have one woman on a board of 10 men,” Ganu told CNA Women at the recent Steward Leadership Summit at Shangri-La Hotel.

“Why? Because they often find that once they’ve joined the board, their voice gets drowned out. (Because of) group-think, they end up being the lone contrarian,” he said.

Ganu shared how a friend of his, the only woman sitting on the board of an oil and gas company, and a proponent of environmental sustainability, tried to propose a “green” campaign.

“For three years, she was the lone voice talking about climate change and energy, and every time she brought it up, she was met with machismo – that ‘here we go again’ attitude.

“What she did next was incredibly brave: Before major board meetings, she would have one-on-ones with male directors, present all the intelligent research she had done, and show them her questions. And she’d ask them to ask these questions on her behalf.

“That’s because when male board directors asked these questions, they got far more discussion time and far more credence,” Ganu said.

“Nobody should be put in this position. No one should need to do this. It was very unfortunate but that was her reality and she used that reality to start to effect change,” he added.

ORGANISATIONAL MINDSET VS INDIVIDUAL MINDSET

What’s blocking progress, both in Singapore and globally, in terms of achieving full gender parity on boards and in senior leadership?

Most of the people CNA Women spoke to said the problems are both systemic and endemic.

Several were of the view that societal biases against women and women’s issues continue to be perpetuated within organisations.

Ganu, whose work at WTW involves educating senior leaders about the importance of having more women in the space, said some continue to hold themselves back by giving excuses.

“You will hear – and I don’t use this term lightly – vapid and ill-thought arguments from some people. For example, (they will say they) don’t have a good enough supply of women with leadership talent.

“I see that as a nonsense response.

“There is a strong enough supply. The issue is demand. Not enough companies are thinking of themselves as stewards and not enough are paying (the right amount of) attention to diversity,” he said.

Ang said that while she acknowledged that progress was being made in women’s leadership, “several common challenges persist”. These include “the motherhood penalty, lack of representation and the stereotype of leadership styles”.

But in terms of creating an environment ripe for diversity of thought, the common theme was not so much training but allyship – both at the organisational and individual levels. LinkedIn, for example has courses that help both men and women become “better allies in driving conversations on diversity and inclusion”, such as Skills for Inclusive Conversations, Unconscious Bias, and Becoming a Male Ally at Work, which share “practical tips on how we can all help to champion women at the workplace”.

“By implementing formal, gender-friendly policies and mentoring programmes, we can empower and better support our community of women in their professional growth,” said Ang.

Koo, who said he identified as a male ally to women, said he “sees an ally as someone who holds an everyday commitment to equity and demonstrates that by supporting their female counterparts in the workplace”.

“This can show up in big and small ways. For example, even seemingly small gestures such as connecting women with other professionals or celebrating their achievements can go a long way in helping them grow in their careers.

“On an organisational level, implementing policies such as providing women with flexible working schedules can also help support working mothers,” said Koo, who is part of Career Ally Network, an initiative by Career Navigators, a subsidiary of Mums@Work Singapore, and LinkedIn.

“More than just networking, true allyship is about forming genuine connections and being advocates for each other. It takes a village to elevate women to leadership positions – we all have a part to play in each other’s successes,” Ang added.

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