More women for Singapore boardrooms

SINGAPORE - That there is a need for a panel of prominent corporate figures, to tackle the level of female representation in Singapore's boardrooms, suggests how poor that level is. But women high-achievers will benefit from the acumen of veteran civil servant J.Y. Pillay, who heads the panel, and several other illustrious corporate chiefs.

They will have to start with the dismal statistic that only 7.9 per cent of board directors in Singapore's listed firms last year were women. This compares unfavourably even with numbers for other regional economies: Indonesia (11.6 per cent), Malaysia (8.7 per cent) and Hong Kong (9.4 per cent). Europe and the United States are further ahead in boardroom gender diversity. In the US, the complaint is that women hold "only" 16.1 per cent of board seats, compared with Germany, where legislative force is being given to the requirement that firms allot 30 per cent of their non-executive board seats to women from 2016. Norwegians are unlikely to be impressed by the German advance: Their country imposed a 40 per cent quota in 2003 and reached that target in 2009. France, Norway, Belgium, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain, too, have officially mandated quotas on public companies, though some will take effect only down the road.

Quotas do not have to be the answer, except perhaps as a last resort. What should matter in board appointments is merit. Women would be the first to agree. The problem is that a corporate culture based on male dominance and shared expectations - even letting aside the possibility of prejudice - is less likely to find the merit that it seeks in women, compared to a culture based on gender fairness and sensitivity. Whether in the West or in the East, women corporate warriors often have to struggle against a glass ceiling which is all the more pernicious because it is invisible. Also, unlike ethnic discrimination, which rightly is seen as odious, gender discrimination is often tolerated as a fact of life, a part of the patriarchal ordering of reality, including economic reality. Men and women uphold that order when they accept it as natural.

The economic achievement of Singapore's educated, talented and increasingly confident women is an index of its success as a meritocratic society. No woman deserves to be in the boardroom merely because she is a woman, of course, but the dice should not be loaded against her the other way around. The panel, as well as a task force that is examining gender diversity in senior management and its impact on corporate performance and governance, would do both the economy and women a service by looking at why their participation in boardrooms is not much better than it is.

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