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It pays to have women directors

Pushing towards gender diversity in the workplace will tackle discrimination and lead to better financial performance

Gender diversity in the workplace is a global issue, but while intentions in South-east Asia are bold, there is evidence that the effects are taking some time to come through.

Despite clear signalling from governments and corporations of a desire to tackle this issue, inequality is still fairly prevalent in Asia's largest public companies - just one in eight seats on the boards is held by women.

It is heartening that many senior positions are held by women, but this has yet to break through to the board level.

A reason may be the outdated perception that women are not "up to the job". Traditional corporate norms mean it is usual to have a male-dominated board.

It is 2017 and more women are proving themselves in top-level roles. There is, for example, no doubt that the region is one with highly educated women, and many of them have extensive experience in business.

If board members are appointed based on ability, experience and expertise, we should expect more gender diversity.

A survey by the Diversity Action Committee Singapore provided some insight - 93 per cent of the respondents relied on "personal contacts" when looking for board candidates, which shows the importance of networking.

Singapore is ranked near the bottom in terms of women's representation on boards, despite matching or exceeding other countries when it comes to the number of women in senior management.

Senior management positions can be a pipeline to board directorships, so we should see the number of women on boards increase. We do seem to be moving in the right direction as women's share of board seats among Singapore-listed companies has exceeded 10 per cent for the first time since data has been collected.

Aside from achieving gender equality in the workplace, there are clear advantages to having women on the board.

A study by Catalyst found that having three or more women on the board creates a "critical mass" that can lead to better financial performance.

Despite this, a survey by Corporate Women Directors International recently found that just eight out of the 20 Asian countries have plans to increase the number of women directors.

The increase would not only benefit business, it would also go a long way towards tackling gender discrimination, giving women representation on the board and creating female role models.

Another potential contributing factor to the issue is that many women would have taken a break from their careers to raise a family. Childcare in South-east Asia still largely falls on mothers, freeing up time for male family members to work.

The net result of this is that men collect years of more experience and networking, while their once-equal female colleagues fall behind.

As at December last year, over half of companies listed on Singapore Exchange had all-male boards. This needs to change.

Women must be recognised as equal to their male colleagues. The region has many educated and talented women, but we need to challenge traditional gender roles to help women progress in the workplace.

Evidence shows that the global shift towards including women in leadership will be beneficial to all, but gender equality in the workplace will be achieved only if individuals, organisations and governments come together to make it work.

The writer is ICAEW regional director for South-east Asia. A version of this article appeared in The Business Times yesterday.

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