Gender diversity on the boards of Singapore's largest listed companies is lagging the region, and the Republic has been overtaken by countries which have made regulation-driven improvements.
A study by Korn Ferry and the Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations (CGIO) of the National University of Singapore (NUS) has put the proportion of women directors on the boards of the 100 largest Singapore-listed companies in 2014 at 7.7 per cent.
The figure, based on the analysis of 2014 annual reports, puts Singapore below the regional average of 10.2 per cent; it outdoes only Japan, with 3.3 per cent, and South Korea, with 2.6 per cent, out of the 10 Asia-Pacific markets in the study. Singapore has in fact regressed on a relative basis. When the study was first done four years ago, Singapore was ahead of Malaysia and India. The percentage of women on the boards of Malaysia's largest listed companies is now 12.5 per cent; in India, it is 11.1 per cent.
The overall percentage of directorships held by women in the Asia-Pacific improved by 0.8 percentage point to 10.2 per cent, with most of that improvement attributable to Malaysia, which went up 4.2 percentage points; Australia was up 3.3 percentage points, and India, up 1.3 percentage points.
It is no coincidence that those three countries recently made regulatory changes to promote gender diversity: In Malaysia, a 30 per cent women-representation target has been set; in Australia, companies are required to set targets on board diversity and provide an explanation if they fail to meet those targets. Over in India, the companies face a quota to appoint at least one woman director.
Korn Ferry's managing director of board and chief executive services Alicia Yi said: "It is clear that governments and regulators play an instrumental role in shaping the board diversity landscape. Whether it is through targets, quota or disclosure requirements, these measures are needed to help enterprises make a deliberate choice in considering female candidates alongside men for senior positions."
Singapore regulations are currently silent about board gender diversity. The Code of Corporate Governance, which applies to listed companies on a comply-or-explain model, only says that boards "should comprise directors who, as a group, provide an appropriate balance and diversity of skills, experience, gender and knowledge of the company".
NUS associate professor Marleen Dieleman, who led the study, said the Australian model - in which companies must set a target but have discretion on which target to adopt - may be suitable for Singapore. "In my view, I don't see (the situation in) Singapore suddenly changing without doing something more substantial. For the trend to go differently, there must be some action," she said.
The study also noted that Singapore directors are the longest tenured in the region, staying for an average of 9.4 years for the men and 7.2 years for the women; this low turnover limits the number of places for women on existing boards.
Ms Yi said some companies may put board diversity on the backburner in the immediate term:
"Companies are cutting costs, laying off, restructuring, being sold or selling certain brands, so I think companies are now kind of back to survival mode. At the same time, I think those are the very reasons why you need to have more diversity at the top."
This article was first published on April 20, 2016.
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