Still a man’s world in Singapore’s boardrooms

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 30 Oct 2011

SINGAPORE: Singapore-listed companies are often praised for their strong balance sheets and solid management, but when it comes to gender diversity, their record is dismal.

A recent study has found that 61.3% of the more than 730 companies listed on the Singapore Exchange (SGX) did not have a single woman on their boards last year.

The study was conducted by the National University of Singapore Business School and BoardAgender, a local organisation that aims to encourage greater gender diversity in corporate boardrooms.

It also found that there has not been much progress in gender diversity among locally listed companies over the years. In 2009, 66.6% of SGX-listed companies had all-male boards, and in 2008, 62% had no female directors.

Of the 5,000 board positions available at the companies listed, the study found that only 6.9% of them were held by women last year, just a slight increase over the previous two years.

Women held 6.6% of company directorships in 2008 and 5.8% in 2009.

These numbers put Singapore behind not only developed Western nations, but also neighbouring economies such as China, Hong Kong and Malaysia, based on other studies and reports.

In Malaysia, women hold 7.8% of board positions, while in China they make up 8.1% of listed company boardrooms, and in Hong Kong, they make up 8.6%.

Norway is the global leader, with 39.5% of listed company directorships taken up by women, followed by Sweden at 27.3% and Finland at 24.5%.

According to the study, it would take 158 more board seats held by women to reach a 10% female representation on the boards of SGX-listed companies.

Speaking as the guest of honour at the launch of the report last week, Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob said: “Our women have achieved much progress in education and at work. Yet they continue to face obstacles in rising to the top leadership positions in the corporate world.

“If there are really good reasons, such as a scarcity of qualified, capable women, I would not be too worried about the absence of women on company boards. But we know that this is not the case.”

Euleen Goh, who is on the boards of DBS Bank, SGX, Singapore Airlines and CapitaLand, said a reason for the lack of female directors in Singapore is the fact that boards tend to be “clubby”.

“The boards tend to invite those whom they know ... There’s a tendency here for boards to say, ‘We’re in a small market, we know everyone in this market’,” she said.

“The result is that you get the same people on the boards, who move in the same circles, read the same books and have the same experience, and will bring the same views to the board.”

Goh and Halimah noted that studies from around the world have shown that companies with greater gender diversity on their boards tend to perform better in their finances too.

“It is too easy for this to be seen as a gender issue, but I would say to boards that it is a business imperative,” said Goh. “More women than you realise make household purchase decisions.”

Halimah suggested that the Government could set an example in promoting greater gender diversity among Singapore companies by appointing more women to the boards of statutory agencies and government-linked companies.

“If we take the lead, I think that will send a very strong signal to all other companies that are SGX-listed.”

Goh is one of eight female directors who held at least three board seats on SGX-listed companies last year. Great Eastern Holdings chairman Fang Ai Lian held the most, with five directorships.

Also among the eight are Tan Siok Chin, an independent director at four listed companies, Lee Ai Ming, who sat on three boards, including Keppel Land’s, and Ng Shin Ein, with three directorships, including one at Yanlord Land.

The study found that female directors in Singapore held fewer board positions than their male counterparts on average. The vast majority of female directors – 94% – held just one seat.

About 4% held two seats, compared with 9% of male directors. None of the female directors held more than five seats, while 1.1% of male directors did.

Companies in the property, logistics and communications sectors had the most gender-diverse boards, with 9.4% of them having at least one female director last year. Finance was ranked lowest, with only 5.2% of companies having at least one woman on the board.

The study also found that women were better represented in executive directorships than in non-executive roles. Some 9% of executive directorships are taken up by women, compared with 5.6% of non-executive positions.

Among independent directors, only 4.5% were women. Women made up 9% of non-independent directors.

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