Commentary: Time to shatter the gender glass ceiling

Commentary: Time to shatter the gender glass ceiling

Singapore women face a glass ceiling at work. Top-level attention and concrete actions can help turn this situation around, says Hays Singapore’s Lynne Roeder.

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What measures, if any, should be put in place to help women rise through the ranks in our businesses? (Image: Rafa Estrada)

SINGAPORE: Are Singapore women being held back by an institutional glass ceiling, halting their progress as they strive to reach the upper echelons of industry? This was the question posed and answered empathically in the affirmative, in an opinion piece by a local media outlet.

Yet there are still those who deny the ceiling exists. They point out that 31 per cent of Singapore’s managerial positions and 9.7 per cent of boards are women, the latter statistic some way above the Asian average of 8.9 per cent.

When you add the fact that we have just elected our first female president, it seems Singapore is doing fairly well in the gender diversity stakes.

Should we then dismiss the argument that a glass ceiling exists as pure hyperbole?

Let’s look at the numbers more thoroughly. For a start, being higher than the Asian average is not the success story it appears to be, as those figures include Japan and South Korea, two countries with some of the lowest managerial gender diversity figures in the world.

In fact, as some have argued, not only is Singapore lagging behind neighbouring Malaysia, India and Indonesia, we are also quite some way behind Europe. And even as the board levels are something to be proud of, the fact that female board members of Singapore-listed firms are paid 43 per cent less than their male counterparts, is not.


Some have argued one reason for the ceiling’s continued existence is an unconscious bias, with boards led by men and interview panels for senior roles predominantly likewise.

While this historical bias is understandable given the gender leaning of these boards, there is a concern the maintenance of this homogeneity is leading to group-think at the board-level, resulting in less innovative companies missing out on potential revenue.

Studies show that conversely, female directors are more likely to pose difficult questions, enhancing board independence. As a result, companies with women in senior leadership and managerial positions see a higher return than those with lower numbers of women on the board, a state that continues through to corporate executives and CEOs.

A failure to follow the lessons of these studies has heavy implications for Singapore’s ability to compete on the global stage.

FILE PHOTO: Barra, Chairman and CEO of General Motors, speaks at the 2017 Fortune magazine's
Mary Barra, chairman and CEO of General Motors, speaks at the 2017 Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women summit in Washington, US, Oct 10, 2017. (File Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)


When you have an issue that is so deeply ingrained in a company’s consciousness, it can be challenging to shift perceptions, but for change to come it must be from the top down.

Of course, many companies already have diversity training programmes, but this needs to be instigated at all levels, particularly for line managers, as they are the ones not only bringing in new staff, but also dealing with them on a day-to-day basis.

According to the Hays Gender Diversity Report 2017, the majority of Singapore’s line managers are men, yet only a third of women are confident that these line managers are aware of their career ambitions. This shows how important it is that a shift in understanding is made to enable the facilitation of development and the meeting of career goals.


There is understandable opposition towards the implementation of gender diversity targets. For some, it opens up accusations of tokenism, while for others it goes against the firmly held Singaporean ideals of meritocracy.

While these are persuasive arguments, for the time being at least, we may have to consider that setting targets and success metrics – measured, developed and reported on as you would any other business initiative - is a short-term necessity as we redress the gender imbalance.

Once women are in place in the higher echelons of organisations, they themselves can become career enablers, shattering the self-imposed glass ceiling by altering other women’s perceptions of what can be achieved.

FILE PHOTO: A statue of a girl facing the Wall St. Bull is seen in the financial district in New Yo
A statue of a girl facing the Wall St Bull is seen, as part of a campaign by US fund manager State Street to push companies to put women on their boards, in the financial district in New York, US on Mar 7, 2017. (File Photo: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)


The use of mentors can greatly accelerate the careers of high-performing individuals, providing a positive experience of growth and development as it empowers and breeds confidence. Organisations should therefore look to set in place mentorship programmes designed to expedite the careers of talented women as well as being a powerful retention tool.

And of course, as these women rise through the ranks, it is important to share their achievements as an encouragement for others.

But the story sharing need not stop with successful women.

We should also profile male line managers and key decision makers who both encourage and practise taking parental leave or the usage of flexible working initiatives. In doing so, we can foster an atmosphere of understanding that the acceptance of gender diversity is not just about placing women in higher roles, but about changing our entire mindset.

Yes, there may be a glass ceiling in Singapore. But through the implementation of targets, the usage of mentors and promoting all those who encourage greater diversity in our businesses, it can be shattered, for the greater good of not just working women, but also for the nation’s profitability as a whole.

Lynne Roeder is managing director of Hays Singapore.

Read: Another commentary on whether women in Singapore can have it all.

Source: CNA/sl