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COVID-19 threatens to slow female leadership in the workplace: Forum

SINGAPORE: The COVID-19 pandemic could affect female leadership in the workplace and boardrooms, according to an online panel discussion hosted by BoardAgender, an initiative by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) on Tuesday (Jun 1).

The one-hour panel discussion on board diversity was held in conjunction with the 30% Club, a global initiative led by chairpersons and CEOs to increase gender diversity at board and senior management levels.

The panel discussion was attended by more than 200 people.

“During COVID, around the world, women have been bearing the (burden of) educating their kids at home more than men have. Even female professors are publishing less papers than male professors right now because of this sort of family burden,” said Ms Ann Cairns, executive vice chair at Mastercard.

"What that’s highlighted is that we haven’t solved childcare globally. What I think you can do is you can look at it inside your own organisation and you can look at it inside your own country, and decide what you're going to do to create some sort of level playing field for men and women about this," Ms Cairns added.

Ms Cairns, who was one of the panellists, highlighted Mastercard’s maternity and paternity leave in more than 200 countries that gives employees four months of full-paid leave. 

“As a manager, you’re not looking at a young woman thinking she’s going to have a baby. You’re looking at a person thinking they’re going to be a parent. That changes the playing field right away,” she said. 

Having things such as emergency childcare in place, she added, would ease the burden for parents, as they know that they can still do their job even if their support “disappears”. 

“We could go backwards this year. It’s up to companies and governments to think what they need to do to start to arrest that regression,” she said.

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It is also important that diversity at senior management level isn't just a PR exercise, but affects fundamental decisions, noted the panellists. 

“We know that if there’s only one woman at the board table, it’s difficult for her to be heard. If there’s two, it gets better. But if there’s 30 per cent women, you get a different lens and conversation,” said Ms Nicola Wakefield Evans, chair of the 30% Club in Australia. 

“You need to have a minimum of 30 per cent, with an aspiration to get to 40 or even 50 per cent. That’s where change comes, and you get decisions being made from different perspectives,” she said.

The whole philosophy behind the “30 per cent” rule of thumb, added Ms Cairns, is that “you stop being a minority”. 

“It’s not just the boardroom you have to worry about. It’s what your employees look like, what communities you’re serving, what you're actually saying to your customers out in the markets,” she added. 

However, “diversity for diversity's sake” might not always work, especially when there’s a need to balance diversity with “domain knowledge”, said Mr Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Group. 

“When you look for diversity, I think what you’re looking for is life experience. Finding what forms your views; it’s a function of how and where you grew up. To me, the most important thing is to figure out how to get people with a diversity of life and job experiences,” he added.  

Asked what a gender inclusive workplace looks like, Ms Wakefield Evans said it’s ultimately “a safe place”. 

“It’s a feeling that someone can bring their whole person to work … but also providing the same opportunity for everybody to be advanced, assessed, promoted, and paid,” she added.

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Diversity can also affect a company’s profits, the panellists said. 

“The data is out there to look at, and that’s what investors are looking at when they say, we want change because we think it will make the companies perform better and be more sustainable,” said Ms Cairns. 

She added that women make up half the human race, and about half the university cohort in many countries. 

“What kind of leaders would we be if we said we were going to choose people from half the graduating class? None of us are doing that at the entry level. And yet, we’re doing that at the top of companies,” she said.  

Getting investors more engaged with the diversity agenda is another crucial step, added Mr Gupta.

He also noted that he does not like the term “allyship”, which has been used to refer to men in the boardroom supporting female leadership. “Allies can be supporters. We need sponsors. We need people who are willing to take an active role in participating and pushing the agenda,” he said.

The panel discussion was part of BoardAgender’s 10th anniversary this year.

Later this month, BoardAgender will also roll out an inaugural mentorship programme for aspiring women directors, where 10 “board-ready women” will be mentored by 10 seasoned board directors for six months.

Source: CNA/gy


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