For high fliers: Help women remain in their careers

National Library Board chief executive Elaine Ng, who started work in the public sector with the Defence Ministry, credits her bosses then with helping her come this far by giving her flexible working hours.

SINGAPORE - The Chinese saying "women hold up half the sky" could well describe the situation in Singapore, where women make up about 44 per cent of workers.

But zoom in on the executives and board directors leading those workers and it is raining men.

Women occupy only 7 per cent of board-level positions at listed companies, and 15 per cent of executive committee positions, a McKinsey and Co report released last year found.

This is not too far off from Asian societies such as Hong Kong, where women hold 9 per cent of board positions. But it is a long way compared to countries such as Norway, at 35 per cent.

In the public sector, there are just six women permanent secretaries, including Ms Lim Soo Hoon of the Finance Ministry, who in 1999 became the first female permanent secretary when she was appointed to head the now-defunct Ministry of Community Development.

The main reason for the under-representation, say observers, is natural self-selection: Women have tended to drop out of the workforce to take care of their families and elderly parents, leaving the men to continue developing their careers.

Others blame inertia on the part of companies. Mrs Laura Hwang, president of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, said: "There are many corporations that feel that if things have worked so well before (with male-dominated boards), do we need any more change?"

Advocates say pressure should be put on companies to encourage women to stay on and to groom them for leadership positions.

Another remedy is to impose a quota system. The European Commission, for example, is debating whether to impose a 40 per cent quota for women to hold non-executive directorships in 5,000 listed companies in Europe.

However, some feel such a hard-line approach should be a last resort, and that the Government could instead first set guidelines for companies to work towards.

Mrs Hwang said one goal could be moving the percentage of women who hold board positions to double-digits within the next two years.

West Coast GRC MP Foo Mee Har, who recently stepped down from a senior banking position at Standard Chartered, suggested companies put in place a clear nomination and selection process to ensure a diverse list of people to pick from for leadership roles.

But Mrs Elaine Ng, 46, chief executive of the National Library Board (NLB), said: "People could still easily say, you're there (at the top) because of this framework. It is powerful and better for the confidence for women to get there without a target, soft or otherwise."

Half of the NLB's senior management are women. Employers need to create a family-friendly work culture, while the Government ensures there are ample childcare resources, so women can feel more confident in balancing work and family and not cut short their careers, she feels.

NLB offers eldercare leave and staggered hours for workers, and later this year will roll out a pilot scheme where some employees do not need to work in the office all the time.

Mrs Ng, who started out in the public service as a research analyst in the Defence Ministry, said her bosses there did not mind her turning up late for work sometimes after taking her two sons to school, or leaving during working hours for parent-teacher meetings. Her boys are now aged 14 and 16.

"If I did not have such supportive bosses and colleagues, I would not have come this far," she said.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.

Become a fan on Facebook