March 8 was International Women's Day - an annual worldwide movement that celebrates the socio-economic roles and contributions of women.
While it is hard to imagine gender inequality in a developed society like Singapore - where females enjoy equal access to education, and comprise close to half of the resident work force - achieving gender parity in corporate leadership roles remains a challenge.
A recent study by the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School's Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations was particularly illuminating: female directors of Singapore Exchange-listed companies are on average paid markedly less than their male counterparts, indicating a gender pay gap of 43.2 per cent.
While the disparity could partly be explained by the types of director roles that women typically held - where they were less likely to serve as committee chairs or lead independent directors, which come with more responsibilities and pay - clearly advancing gender parity on boards is not just about the number of seats but the quality of those seats and the associated remuneration.
LEGISLATION OR PURPOSEFUL CHANGE?
The Government's focus on board gender parity has been apparent with the setting up of the Diversity Task Force, followed by the Diversity Action Committee in recent years.
Despite this, women's representation on boards in Singapore stands at just 9.7 per cent as at June 2016 - a rather dismal increase from 9.1 per cent a year ago.
While legislation may hasten the pace of change, surely a true appreciation of board gender parity and a deep-seated business-driven desire to achieve that would be more purposeful and enduring.
By now, many business leaders would already have heard that gender parity is not a feminist but a business issue.
Research by EY and the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which surveyed some 22,000 organisations globally, found that a company with female leaders will outperform one with none.
In fact, if 30 per cent of a company's leaders are women, its net margin would be six percentage points higher than one without women in their executive ranks.
An analysis of the S&P Composite 1500 has shown that companies with women in leadership positions enjoy an "increase in innovation intensity".
The question for businesses is: Do you know how much you are losing out without appropriate female representation on your boards?
The reality is that many do not have a good sense of that.
This points to one of the key challenges that confronts businesses today - that there is insufficiently clear metrics or data for boards and management to enable them to measure the need for, or the efficacy of their gender diversity efforts and the impact on business performance.
Many look at existing boards and think there is a shortage of female board talent. Various reasons - or misconceptions - could account for that. Regardless, it is the responsibility of both genders to address the issue of the talent pipeline.
IT TAKES BOTH WOMEN AND MEN
Women executives with board service aspirations need to firstly proactively understand what it takes to serve on a board and how their skills and experience can be enhanced to prepare for the role.
Also, women executives can broaden their board potential by seeking mentors to provide advice and guidance, as well as sponsors to endorse them across wider networks.
Some argue that women need to do a better job of advocating for themselves.
On the other hand, given that most senior business leaders are male currently, men can certainly close the gender gap by making diversity both a personal and corporate priority.
They can lead company cultural change with progressive policies that support flexible work arrangements for women.
Making female role models visible is another way to build an inclusive environment - so people throughout the company can visualise what it means to rise to the leadership ranks.
Finally, male leaders can mentor or sponsor female colleagues with leadership potential and endorse them within their networks.
THE RIGHT THING TO DO
Ultimately, the push for gender parity on boards is not about achieving a perfect 50:50 ratio.
Tokenism and quotas would have been the easy answer to that.
What we should demand of ourselves as leaders is to be a change agent for the best outcomes for our businesses and stakeholders - and in this case, it means to respect the business merits of having women leaders for better working boards.
The writer is EY ASEAN and Singapore managing partner, Ernst & Young LLP. The views are the writer's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organisation or its member firms. This article, which has been edited for length, first appeared in The Business Times yesterday.
This article was first published on March 16, 2017.
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