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Fostering greater diversity in leadership

Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at the Book Launch for “Women On Board: Making a Real Difference” and the 2018 ASEAN Corporate Governance Scorecard
03 April 2018

Mr Willie Cheng, Chairman, Singapore Institute of Directors

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

1. A very good morning to you. It is my honour to be back here. Thank you very much SID for giving me this opportunity, I have always cherished the ability to speak on this issue. It is very close to my heart, and to a very appropriate audience who are very much involved in board matters and the appointment of board directors.

2. I am happy to join you at the launch of the Singapore Institute of Directors’ book on women directors, and the presentation of awards to top companies in the 2018 ASEAN Corporate Governance Scorecard.

The need for board gender diversity

3. In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, a gender-diverse board with a wide range of talents, background, experience and expertise is no longer a good-to-have, but a must-have. Let me share with you three reasons why I believe this to be true.

4. First, Singapore is facing demographic challenges and a high demand for labour. I’m sure by now you have heard about how demographic changes will be affecting our future. Even now as we speak, I’ve been sharing with some of my friends four numbers; 50 – 90. It sounds better in Chinese, 五十,九十. 50 represents 五十万 or 500,000. As of today, 500,000 Singaporeans are above 65 years of age. In 12 years time - the next year of the dog - that number is going to go up to 九十万 or 900,000. It is not magic; it is already existing. I am one of them, I am already 54 years old this year. In twelve years’ time I will be 66, and joining the ranks of Singaporeans aged 65 and above. 

5. Coupled with the fact that we have been having low fertility rates, in a few decades, this group that will be retiring soon will actually be replaced with a leaner group, better educated, but no doubt a different group of workers. Labour force growth is going to be slim. We are talking about a 1 – 2 percent growth going forward and in that scenario, what should businesses do in order to harness the productivity as well as the energy of our workforce? We cannot ignore the women among us. Women participation rates is one of those areas - one of the few remaining areas I must add – that has potential for us to raise labour participation overall in the economy.

6. To sustain your business, you need manpower – or ‘woman power’ - strategies to help recruit and retain your talents, including female employees. How can we make the workplace more inclusive? How can we attract and develop our talents? How can we provide flexible work arrangements for our male and female employees, so that they can balance their work-life responsibilities, and continue to remain in the workforce?

7. Second, workplace gender and sexual discrimination have come to the forefront, particularly in the past few months. I think you cannot go for a week without noticing #MeToo in the headlines. Not just in entertainment news, but on the front pages of major newspapers such as the New York Times, The Financial Times and so on. It is now imperative for every company to have fair policies and practices, otherwise you are exposed to much risk. How can we ensure a safe and inclusive workplace? How can we prevent and responsibly handle grievances? How can we give our female employees maternity protection, or address issues about gender pay gaps? Who can advise you on these matters better? The folks and friends who play golf with you, or someone who can represent the voice of a woman?

8. Third, women are a key consumer group you must engage. Women are behind many purchasing decisions, from groceries, essentials, vacations to automobiles, where you bank where you invest. With increasing purchasing power, women’s influence in the marketplace have grown and will grow even further. You will need female perspectives on your board to guide you in customer engagement.

9. In summary, businesses with women on their boards will be in a better position to manage gender-based opportunities and challenges in the workplace, and in the marketplace. Female board members can provide perspectives that will add value to your company’s strategies, policies and practices.

Shifting mind-set on role of women

10. In spite of the value that women can bring to the table, they are still under-represented at the boards. Women make up more than 45% of Singapore’s resident labour force, but occupy just over 10% of board seats. Why is this so? A recent report released by BoardAgender on gender diversity highlighted that a rigid mind-set about women’s role is a major impediment to board gender diversity. There is still a misperception that talented women may not be suitable as board directors because of their multiple commitments at home and at work.

11. So I am happy to be here at the launch the SID’s new book, titled “Women on Board: Making a Real Difference” today. This book charts the directorship journeys of 24 female directors from diverse demographic and professional backgrounds. Their stories demonstrate that women can and do make significant contributions as board directors on corporate and non-profit organisations.

12. Many of the directors featured in the book are making their mark in their careers, while concurrently fulfilling family commitments. They are also actively pursuing their diverse passions. And with 24 illustrious examples and limited time, I can only mention two of them, and I beg your forgiveness if I missed out mentioning yours. I would like to highlight Ms Tan Yen Yen and Ms Jessica Tan. They are both veterans in the technology sector, and bring their deep expertise and female perspectives to the board room. Yen Yen is currently the president of Asia Pacific at Vodafone Global Enterprise, and serves on several government and corporate boards. She is very passionate about getting involved in sports, and I work very closely with her as she champions our spexBusiness initiative, which is really to get businesses sponsoring our elite athletes. She also finds time to run marathons and triathlons, and is a mother of four. Jessica is a group director at Raffles Medical Group. She is serving on several industry associations, school and statutory boards, and is active in public service as a Member of Parliament. The mother of three is also a long-distance runner, and the president of Netball Singapore.

13. I would like to congratulate and thank SID, BoardAgender and Accenture for producing this wonderful book to illustrate the achievements of women board directors, the contributions they can bring, and also in motivating women, and to show how others have contributed to Singapore in different ways. I hope that its female readers will be inspired to set high aspirations for themselves, and act boldly to achieve them. As for male readers, I believe the stories in this book will provide you with much food for thought about the potential of women in your organisation.

Achieving board gender diversity

14. I am glad that many of you who are receiving awards today for scoring well in the ASEAN Corporate Governance Scorecard, are also leading the way in promoting board gender diversity. 

15. But there is still much room for improvement. The Scorecard highlighted that about six in 10 of the top 100 listed companies do not have any female board directors, and three in 10 have just one.

16. Last year, the Monetary Authority of Singapore formed a Corporate Governance Council to review the Code of Corporate Governance. The Council’s recommendations to require companies to disclose their board diversity policy and progress, and to review the nine-year threshold for independent directors, are positive steps towards board renewal and diversity. In time to come, I hope that more companies can follow SID’s example for having 30% of their board being women.

Conclusion

17. It will take time and collective effort by all corporate leaders to shift mind-sets and create change. In 2016, the Diversity Action Committee set the target of 20% female board directorship among SGX listed companies by 2020. To achieve this target, we need to double the number of female directors we have. It is a stretch target, but it will be possible to achieve if we can collectively make a serious commitment to do so.

18. Let us all continue to strengthen our corporate governance, and move the needle on board gender diversity.

19. Thank you so much for your support, and have a good day ahead!
Last Updated: 19 April 2018

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