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Welcoming different points of view
IN an increasingly competitive business world, developing a broad range of talent comprising different genders, ethnicities and experiences has become a top priority for many organisations around the world.
Proponents argue that diversity in the workplace will help throw up different viewpoints and ideas needed to tackle complex problems, and avoid the possibility of dangerous groupthink creeping into decision-making. This is particularly important as companies conduct more of their business across borders and have to deal with a rising number of different stakeholders.
Says Karen Loon, financial services assurance partner and diversity leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Singapore: "A key attribute for future corporate success is adaptability - one must be nimble and responsive. This includes having a good mix of talent and the ability to alter the mix depending on business needs. It also means having people who can think and work in different ways.
"Having the right talent diversity is a must in both the current and future business climates."
Companies in Asia have generally been slower to adopt diversity policies despite international interest in gender diversity having grown significantly over the past decade. In 2000, only the US regularly monitored the proportion of women on top corporate boards, while there are at least 12 countries that are regularly doing so today.
Some have taken steps to encourage diversity, from introducing voluntary measures to legislative action and imposing mandatory quotas, although most of these moves have taken place in western countries.
Low Chin Loo, president, Financial Women's Association of Singapore, says: "Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is a relatively new concept in workplaces in Asia. To get Asian organisations to include D&I as part of their workplace culture, it has to be framed as a business imperative. This is starting to be done. Education and awareness building need to continue and conversations on this topic need to be audible and visible."
She argues for companies to implement formal procedures in hiring and promotion that encourage a more diverse talent mix.
Ms Loon believes that as a younger generation of workers demand greater diversity at their workplaces, employers will need to follow suit or risk losing out in the war for talent. A recent PwC survey indicated that 92 per cent of Singaporean male and female millennials surveyed found an employer's policy on diversity, equality and workforce inclusion important.
"Today's millennials, who are becoming an increasingly larger portion of the talent pool and have grown up in a different world from their older colleagues, prefer to work for organisations which embrace diversity and inclusion in their policies and practices," she says.
In recent years, there has been a big push to get more women on the corporate boards of Singapore-listed companies. According to the Singapore Directorship Report published in November 2014, while half of Singapore's workforce is made up of women, less than 10 per cent of board directors are females.
Mildred Tan, managing director, Asean government & public sector leader at EY, says: "Most boards in Singapore tend to focus only on skills diversity while not sufficiently considering other important dimensions of gender, industry background, age and tenure, ethnicity and culture, and geography.
"The world economy is driven by sustainable value and business growth, which depend upon attracting, optimising and retaining all talent. It's in every organisation's best economic interest to fully utilise and optimise the talents of women."
Some of the obstacles that affect women in the workforce include a lack of clear path to leadership roles, family responsibilities and inadequate support from management. Ms Tan urges organisations to consider making the path to leadership clear to women who are seeking opportunities to advance.
Ms Low adds that the lack of flexibility to accommodate a woman's family responsibilities could cause many females on the fast track to scale back their ambitions.
"This impacts women in their 30s and 40s particularly hard - which is the time where work and life demands tend to peak. In fact, this mid-career stage is the time when women are most likely to experience challenges in accelerating their careers. The highest performing companies support flexible work arrangements for women - and men," she says.
On its part, Singapore has been actively advocating greater diversity in recent years. In 2012, the Monetary Authority of Singapore revised the Code of Corporate Governance to include "gender" in the guideline on boards.
Meanwhile, the Singapore Institute of Directors also launched the Board Diversity Pledge in August this year. Over 200 listed companies have signed up for the pledge committing to promote diversity.
Says Ms Loon: "While Singaporeans embrace diversity of inherent attributes - the traits that you were born with, such as gender and ethnicity, it is important to also focus on acquired diversity, which is becoming increasingly important in today's global business world."
She adds: "These are traits gained from experience such as working in another country, which can help one appreciate cultural differences, language skills, or diversity of thought. For Singapore to maximise strategic growth opportunities and to further nurture creative and innovative talent, both inherent and acquired diversities are equally important."