SINGAPORE: While progress in board diversity has shown “promising signs” over the years, the pace of progress needs to be bigger and faster, Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob said on Thursday (Oct 27) at an event discussing the existence of a glass ceiling for women at the workplace.
In response to a question by Channel NewsAsia, Madam Halimah, who has spoken out on the topic of having more women on the executive boards of organisations for years now, noted that progress has lagged behind her expectations.
She said she hopes to see “bigger changes faster”, though she pointed to “promising signs” of change such as the Monetary Authority of Singapore's suggestion last month that it may be time to review Singapore’s corporate governance code on issues including board diversity.
Madam Halimah’s comments come after the Diversity Action Committee (DAC) said in a report presented to the Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, earlier this month that change in the boardrooms of local companies needs to occur faster.
According to the report, women's representation on executive boards rose from 8 per cent in 2012 to 9.7 per cent by end-June this year. However, this figure still lags behind other developed countries.
Failing to stay ahead in board diversity could put a dent on Singapore's reputation as a "leading business hub with sound and exemplary governance", the committee warned, adding that gender balance in the boardrooms remained a critical element for better and more transparent corporate governance.
Madam Halimah said progress in the corporate world will be “necessary” to reflect the developments of society. “There was a period in the 1980s when we did not have any women in Parliament at all. Now, it’s a situation where we cannot imagine not having any women at all in Parliament because we know they can raise good suggestions and questions,” she said.
“I am also glad to note that our social norms are changing to provide more support for women. When I first entered politics many years ago, a frequently asked question was who was taking care of my children,” Madam Halimah added. “I reminded them I have a husband.”
Nonetheless, there seem to be positive signs from the business world. The chief executives of not just multinational companies but also some local small- and medium-enterprises (SMEs), have indicated their willingness to look at this issue seriously, she said.
“The DAC consulted and talked to a lot of companies … and that’s an attempt to create momentum from the ground up,” Madam Halimah said. “I think that is useful in getting awareness raised, getting people to talk about it and getting the companies to take the ball and run.”
BREAKING THROUGH THE GLASS CEILING
The event on Thursday, organised by BoardAgender and insurance brokerage and consultancy Willis Towers Watson, also featured a panel of senior executives to discuss the lack of board diversity and the existence of a glass ceiling in the workplace.
The panel of senior executives at the event on Thursday came from a wide range of industries such as banking, oil and gas and technology.
According to chairman and non-executive independent director of Keppel REIT, Dr Chin Wei-Li Audrey Marie, the low proportion of women filling up board seats may be “temporal” with the rise of female business leaders in Singapore such as Singtel CEO Chua Sock Koong.
However, there are still limiting factors as societal norms such as child-bearing responsibilities remain key factors as to why women drop out mid-career and fail to ascend to the C-suite, said Dr Chin, who also serves as the lead independent director on the board of NTUC Income Insurance Co-operative Singapore.
“If you don’t have so many women as CEOs, you will not have that many women as board members. This supply chain issue is due to women dropping out mid-career on the back of societal norms and responsibilities … but I think this will be temporary with so many women CEOs now,” she told Channel NewsAsia.