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Women must help women improve board diversity: Halimah

Women should encourage other women to stay in their jobs, especially working mothers, Mdm Halimah said.


WOMEN in key positions should use their influence and expertise to help other women to develop their careers and become potential directors, Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob said on Tuesday at a conference for senior women executives and professionals.

Neither the percentage of board seats that are filled by women nor the average annual growth rate of about 0.5 percentage points for that proportion are enough, Mdm Halimah said at the event organised by the Diversity Action Committee (DAC).

"At this rate, it will take too long for us to reap the benefits of women's participation at the top decision-making levels of companies," she said in a prepared speech.

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DAC chairman Magnus Bocker shared that the percentage of board seats on Singapore-listed companies that were held by women had improved slightly this year, to 9.1 per cent as at end-June from 8.8 per cent as at end-2014.

Women comprised 12.7 per cent of new appointments during the six-month period. Among companies with market capitalisation of more than S$1 billion, the representation of women among new appointments in the first half of 2015 rose to 24 per cent from 15.6 per cent as at end-2014.

"It is encouraging to see that more large companies are embracing gender diversity in the boardrooms," Mr Bocker said. "DAC hopes that all SGX-listed companies, large and small, will take positive steps to rebalance their board capabilities."

Mdm Halimah drew from her own experience in politics, noting that there were only three women members of parliament (MPs) when she entered politics in 2000, but there are 21 today. "It is not by chance that we have more women MPs now," she said. "All candidates are, first and foremost, selected based on meritocracy, not by gender. However, we make special efforts to look out for capable women to bring them into politics. This has helped us to have diverse perspectives on issues ranging from the economy, education, social development to national development and security."

Increasing board diversity will likewise require effort, Mdm Halimah said.

Beyond developing themselves, women in positions of power should also give their peers a helping hand whenever possible, she said.

For example, women should encourage other women to stay in their jobs, especially working mothers, Mdm Halimah said. A supportive workplace that offers flexible times so that women can stay fully or partially employed will also allow women to continue accumulating skills and experiences, even if that development is at a slower pace.

Women who have taken a break from work will also require support when returning to the workforce. Mdm Halimah cited financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley that offer internships for returnees to explore a new area of expertise or to return to their old portfolios.

Women in senior positions should also help to mentor junior women executives, not just in terms of skills, but also in terms of ambitions, Mdm Halimah said.

Keynote speaker Lee Suet Fern, managing partner of law firm Morgan Lewis Stamford, said that companies and boards that ignore the pool of talented women in Singapore do so at their own cost.

"I have never doubted that Singapore has a significant proportion of credible women capable of serving on corporate boards," Ms Lee said. "Overseas companies are also looking out for talented women in Singapore to provide them an Asian and female perspective to decision-making in the boardroom. To ignore them is to risk overlooking qualified candidates in a talent-scarce market and to miss the chance to enhance the diversity of voices and views that would make for better corporate governance, more dynamic boards and more business-facing companies."