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Singapore loses to less developed neighbours in board diversity

[SINGAPORE] Singapore, Southeast Asia's most advanced economy, is falling behind its less developed peers when it comes to women breaking the glass ceiling at companies.

The island nation is ranked near the bottom on female representation on company boards in the Asia-Pacific region, behind only South Korea and Japan, according to a Korn Ferry study of 2014 annual reports in 10 economies.

Women made up 7.7 per cent of the boards of the largest publicly listed companies in Singapore, 2.6 per cent in South Korea and 3.3 per cent in Japan, the executive search and organizational advisory firm said in a press statement.

In contrast, Malaysia saw the largest year-on-year increase in female board representation to 12.5 per cent from 8.3 per cent, while companies in India reported an increase to 8.6 per cent from 7.3 per cent.

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"Singapore in general believes more strongly on meritocracy and there are other priorities superseding gender diversity," Alicia Yi, managing director for board and CEO services at Korn Ferry, said in Singapore Tuesday.

"But if it's through meritocracy, you would think that there would be more women that you'd see naturally on company boards."

Government policy or support help, such as targets, quota or disclosure requirements, according to Korn Ferry.

Malaysia is the only country in the study to have set a target of 30 per cent female representation by 2016, and provided active support for companies to reach the goal, Korn Ferry said.

In India, the law requires all listed companies to have at least one woman on the board, it said.

Australia is the best performing country in the region with 21.9 per cent female board members among companies listed on the nation's stock exchange. Aided by gender diversity policies in its corporate governance council reporting rules, the country is the only one in the survey where more than 20 per cent of board members are women, almost double what it used to be in 2011, according to Korn Ferry.

"Singapore needs to set guidelines and targets," said Marleen Dieleman, associate professor at National University of Singapore's business school.

"They need to make a political decision to do something more substantial."

One takeaway from the study is that companies with at least 10 per cent female board members delivered a 14.9 per cent return on equity in 2014, compared to 12.6 per cent for those without.

The study examined the largest 100 publicly listed companies' 2014 annual reports in Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea. Korn Ferry collaborated with the National University of Singapore on the study.