CO-WRITTEN / PARTNER | Contributed Content, Singapore
Matthew Kay

Women at the top – the great talent gap


A new year is a time for change – could this year be the one which sees women in Singapore put a sizeable crack in the glass ceiling? A new council, The Council for Board Diversity, has been established which is focused on getting more women onto boards and into top jobs.

This new council replaces the Diversity Action Committee and has a wider-reaching scope, rather than just focussing on SGX businesses, it will also focus on supporting the progression of female talent on the boards of public and people sector organisations.

President Halimah Yacob is patron of The Council for Board Diversity and when she announced the creation of this council recently, she acknowledged the progress so far – of the top 100 primary-listed SGX companies, the representation of women on boards has increased to 15.2 per cent, compared to 7.5 per cent in 2014.

Some sectors are making more notable strides forward when it comes to gender equality. The Financial Times has praised the positive ratio of female partners to male in Asia-Pacific law firms, which compared favourably to US firms. A number of “charismatic female leaders” in the legal sector in Singapore particularly were recognised.

However, the view across Singapore is that statistics show progress, but this progress isn’t quick enough. Much more needs to be done to ensure gender quality on boards.

It might be worth taking a moment to think about why gender parity on a company’s board is so important. Writing in a piece in 2016 for the World Economic Forum, Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation put it succinctly: “How long do you think it will take for women around the world to achieve economic equality with men? The answer might surprise you: 80 years. And how much do you think it would contribute to the global economy? $28 trillion, roughly the size of the economies of the United States and China combined. Women are the ultimate economic accelerator.” Having women on boards isn’t just fair, it provides a huge fiscal boost and the reasons for this are manifold – women are often highly educated, good decision makers and it just makes sense that by only hiring men, you’re missing out on talent.

So, what are the major blocks to women achieving these top jobs? Unsurprisingly, bias and stereotypes remain a problem. Another big issue is the fact that women who want to have a family have to take some time off – if they have multiple children, this is multiple periods of absence from the workplace and it is around this time that men tend to steal a march on their female colleagues in terms of career progression. 

We've seen an increase in the number of mothers working with us, in a flexible manner as a way to return to full-time work after a career break. And although there is a growing focus on both parents sharing the load when it comes to childcare, the majority still falls on the mother – and this also impacts their career.

Singapore has some initiatives in place to boost the number of women in the workplace and specifically, on boards. A few years ago, the Diversity Action Committee started a name and shame policy after it found over a third (38) of Singapore’s top 100 companies had entirely male boards and as mentioned at the top of this piece, this approach is working. Rachel Eng, deputy chair of WongPartnership, also credits government policies which help women with childcare.

The Singapore government has also offered employers the opportunity to apply for an ‘enhanced work-life grant’, which helps support their employees who wish to work flexibly and improve their work-life balance. These sorts of initiatives help and should be embraced by employees - offering different ways of working to help support women can make a big difference. If more businesses offer initiatives to help women balance their home commitments and work, they may be more likely to retain and help progress talented employees. For example, this could range from helping pay / create childcare centres in the firm, to allowing more flexible working so women can balance their work and childcare more easily. Some women are also looking at working in different ways. In the legal sector for example, more people are looking to work as a legal consultant to provide more flexibility in their careers.

In March, Singapore will see the annual Women in Leadership conference – 2019 might not be the year the attendees declare the glass ceiling is broken for women, but that crack is certainly getting larger.

The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.

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Matthew Kay

Matthew Kay

Matthew is the Director of Vario and has overall global responsibility for the strategic direction, management and growth of Vario. Since joining Pinsent Masons in 2015, Matthew has led Vario on a rapid programme of development, more than doubling in size and expanding the business into new jurisdictions across Asia Pacific. Under Matthew’s leadership, Vario has become the leading law firm led provider of flexible legal solutions. Vario now represents almost 500 lawyers across numerous jurisdictions. Matthew is passionate about how the Vario approach solves real business problems for some of the world’s leading organisations, and offers alternative working patterns to talented legal professionals.

Prior to joining Pinsent Masons, Matthew worked internationally for a global management consulting organisation, specialising in major business process outsourcing (BPO) projects.

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