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Women rising through the ranks

Three corporate leaders speak about why the rise of women to senior positions augurs well for business

"Earlier this year, we were delighted to make Bloomberg's global Gender-Equality Index, and to be recognised among some 100 companies in the world as best-in-class for gender equality. In Singapore, women account for 40% of our senior management (senior VPs to MDs)." - Piyush Gupta, DBS.

"By harnessing the diversity of our talent pool represented by different genders, age groups, ethnicities, cultures, geographies and backgrounds, we are able to explore issues from various angles which is a strategic advantage when it comes to decision-making and operations." - Sherman Kwek, CDL.

"What is really required is a strength of conviction among business leaders that advancing women is both necessary and good. Nobody likes to break out of their comfort zones, and it is always easiest to assemble a board or team of individuals like ourselves, with the same views and ideas." - Goh Swee Chen, Shell.


  • Piyush Gupta, CEO, DBS Group
  • Sherman Kwek, CEO, City Developments Limited (CDL)
  • Goh Swee Chen, chairman, Shell Companies in Singapore

Moderator: Francis Kan, The Business Times

The Business Times: In your opinion, what is the state of women in leadership positions in corporate Singapore today?

Piyush Gupta: We are moving in the right direction but more can be done. Research by Grant Thornton found that in 2017, one in four senior roles globally was held by a woman.

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In Singapore, we fared better, with females accounting for 30 per cent of senior roles, up from 26 per cent in 2016. At the board level, however, Singapore is second to last among major international centres when it comes to gender diversity. A report by BoardAgender and the Human Capital Leadership Institute found that, as at June 2017, females accounted for 12.2 per cent of the boards of Singapore's top 100 listed companies. This was up from 10.9 per cent as at end-December 2016. While this denoted progress, we still lagged behind Germany (27.2 per cent), United Kingdom (27 per cent), United States (20 per cent) and Hong Kong (15 per cent).

Sherman Kwek: There has certainly been progress over the years, especially with the Diversity Action Committee's initiatives which have raised awareness about the benefits of gender diversity in boardrooms and key management positions. However, for a leading business hub like Singapore, the pace of change should certainly be faster since empowering women in the workplace is in line with Singapore's goal to build a more inclusive society.

There are still relatively fewer women occupying board and C-suite positions, especially in sectors that are traditionally male-dominated. It appears there is still some distance to go in overcoming barriers like male leaders hiring in their own image as well as misconceptions such as the perceived lack of qualified women candidates in the talent pool.

Goh Swee Chen: We are seeing more women in leadership positions today.  This has been helped by a growing awareness of the gender disparities in executive positions as well as on boards. However, more still needs to be done. In Singapore, as at end-2017, just over 13 per cent of Singapore boards in the top 100 primary-listed companies on the Singapore Exchange were made up of women directors, according to the Diversity Action Committee (DAC). In the DAC ranking, Singapore was fifth to last, ahead of China, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.  We can do better.

BT: What does your organisation do to help women rise in their careers?

Piyush Gupta: Earlier this year, we were delighted to make Bloomberg's global Gender-Equality Index, and to be recognised among some 100 companies in the world as best-in-class for gender equality. In Singapore, women account for 40 per cent of our senior management (senior vice-presidents to managing directors). Notably, almost all the most powerful functions, including our two largest business units, Consumer Banking/ Wealth Management and Institutional Banking, are run by women. (See sidebar)

We have a slew of policies that provide flexibility to women, allowing them to off-ramp and on-ramp, especially through their child-bearing years. This includes flexible time, part-time, work-from- home and sabbatical leave arrangements. We seek to make it easy for our women colleagues to come back to a comparable job even after taking time out from their careers.

Sherman Kwek: We have always believed in the importance of fair employment practices, including key aspects such as recruitment, remuneration and career progression, and we strive hard to offer equal opportunities to both genders. This is evident in our staff profile where women make up about 70 per cent of CDL's workforce and 40 per cent of our department heads. We have also established a Board Diversity Policy which sets out a clear framework to promote diversity on our Board.  In addition, we established an internal Diversity and Inclusion Task Force to engage our staff on related issues within CDL and the larger community.

Goh Swee Chen: In Shell, we expect our leaders to help drive key programmes such as early talent identification and access to key roles for women.  Leaders also are expected to increase and integrate the focus on inclusive leadership, mitigate unconscious bias through coaching and interventions, and identify and inspire men and women as advocates of change. Foundational activities to retain female talent for the long term have been established. I believe it now requires the consistent persistence of the men and women in Shell to achieve the desired gender balance.

Women make up only 11 per cent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers globally. In Shell, we are taking proactive and positive actions to increase the numbers of women in technical roles and are involved in a variety of initiatives to encourage girls to take up sciences in their tertiary education, with the goal of ultimately creating a talent pipeline that is balanced between men and women.

 We are seeing progress globally through these actions. In 2017, Shell was listed in the Times Top 50 employers for women for the fourth year in succession and Shell was the only energy company of our scale to be listed. We have made progress in increasing female representation on the Royal Dutch Shell Board, from 8 per cent in 2011 to 33 per cent in 2017. 

BT: How has your company benefited from having more women in leadership?

Piyush Gupta: First, Asia is talent short, and so looking far and wide is crucial to finding the best. Embracing gender diversity allows us to tap into a wider talent pool where others may not be looking. Second, it helps ensure that as an organisation, we have a multiplicity of views and perspectives that is helpful in preventing groupthink. Third, having women in leadership creates a virtuous circle. It is motivating to our younger female colleagues to know they can rise to senior positions on merit. Being seen as a progressive organisation also makes us an attractive employer to prospective talent.

Sherman Kwek: We have benefited hugely from the unique perspectives and creativity that our male and female employees bring to the table. By harnessing the diversity of our talent pool represented by different genders, age groups, ethnicities, cultures, geographies and backgrounds, we are able to explore issues from various angles which is a strategic advantage when it comes to decision-making and operations. An example is when Ms Tan Yee Peng joined the CDL Board in 2014 as our first female director. She brought fresh perspectives and a robust set of skills to the table.

Goh Swee Chen: In my mind, a diverse and inclusive organisation will always have superior access.  Access to diverse ideas, solutions and resources are so critical to the long-term viability of a corporation.  Ben van Beurden, CEO Royal Dutch Shell, offered a succinct quote: "Embedding diversity and inclusion in our business plans will help ensure we reach our goal to become a world-class investment opportunity. We must ensure our energy portfolio is attractive to both partners and customers. We cannot achieve this without a diverse workforce that reflects the diversity of our partners, customers and the countries in which we operate."

BT: What kind of biases do women face in the workplace and what can companies do to counter them?

Piyush Gupta: Women do face challenges juggling work and family commitments especially when their children are young. Sometimes, this may be held against them, consciously or unconsciously. Unless companies actively ensure that parity exists, there could be instances of gender pay gaps for similar roles, or gender bias in hiring and promotions.

To address this, companies should create a female-friendly environment, with flexible policies that make it easy for them to remain in the workplace. Companies should also promote a culture of meritocracy. This includes having clear hiring and promotion practices with objective criteria, and frequent salary reviews for parity between genders.

Sherman Kwek: Women employees can face an "emotional tightrope" where they are often labelled as being too emotional yet they also cannot appear to be too masculine. A common bias is the notion of a "maternal wall" where women employees are presumed to lose their career focus upon having children, which may not always be the case. I believe we can counter the biases through training at all levels of the organisation to remove subconscious barriers that may exist in the minds of the employees. Strict policies against sexual harassment should also be in place in order to discourage a hostile work environment. In addition, work-life balance is very important and many organisations should provide family- friendly, flexible work practices to enable female employees to better balance the demands of work and home.

Goh Swee Chen: The gender gap in engineering can be attributed to many factors, including stereotyping, bias and micro-inequities which are still present in society today, for example, with schoolchildren and teachers sometimes perceiving that engineering is "only for boys".

Shell offers amazing opportunities for talented female engineers and wants to help change that social narrative to ensure a sustainable, gender-balanced talent pool for the future.

This year, we are launching a global video-based campaign named "Closing the Gender Gap in Engineering" to transform that social narrative.

BT: What more do you think the business community can do to help more women advance in the corporate world?

Piyush Gupta: Companies can do more to provide women with the tools and skills to succeed in the workplace. We can also do more to address unconscious stereotyping. In addition, the issue of corporate diversity has gained importance over the years. A number of European countries such as Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands, and closer to home, Malaysia, have introduced compulsory quotas to ensure greater representation of women on the boards of listed companies. Singapore has no diversity quota today, but companies should take the matter of having diverse boards seriously.

Sherman Kwek: Change starts from the top and for this issue to gain traction, it is vital for business leaders to overcome their traditional biases and recognise the value that women can bring to an organisation. Therefore, it is important to reach out to these business leaders and encourage them in a thoughtful manner with the aim of getting them to incorporate gender diversity practices into their corporate culture. Obviously, a more stringent approach would be if our stock exchange makes it mandatory for listed companies to have a certain ratio of women on their boards. This would certainly propel gender diversity forward at an accelerated pace but it would also likely trigger much debate as to the legitimacy of the regulation.

Goh Swee Chen: Apart from drawing up codes of governance and mandating targets, what is really required is a strength of conviction among business leaders that advancing women is both necessary and good.  Nobody likes to break out of their comfort zones, and it is always easiest to assemble a board or team of individuals like ourselves, with the same views and ideas.   Encouraging a diverse array of ideas can lead to bigger breakthroughs and better business decisions.

Having said all this, helping women advance in the corporate world cannot be a unilateral effort. Women must be determined to help ourselves as well - metaphorically, if we want to play in a high stakes game, we must be prepared to take the calculated risks. This means not always making the "safe" career choices and developing the confidence to try, fail, and learn. For by doing so, we know how far we can reach.