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The recent debate over the increasingly persistent issue of under-representation of women on boards in Singapore has shed light on the underlying problems in Singapore’s work sphere. While the country has evolved into a first-world economy, it has ironically and stubbornly retained the tradition of male-dominated upper-management—so much that a recent study found it to be even behind less-developed economies in terms of the percentage of women holding directorships on the boards of listed companies. In Singapore, this phenomenon seems to be caused by the lack of preexisting culture of female leaders, and the perception of females being suited to the domestic sphere rather than the office as well as of women being reticent, resulting in a general reluctance to appoint women onto boards.
Currently, the pressing issue concerns the steps to be taken in response to this problem. Perhaps the most drastic of them would be the implementation of quotas, as adopted by various European countries (e.g. France, Italy and the Netherlands). The argument for this is that this “creates an impetus to create diversity” (Marleen Dieleman, NUS) and is crucial for progress, backed by statistics showing that companies with higher percentages of females on their boards have indeed performed better in relation to their counterparts with lower percentages. Indeed, diversity is a crucial element for progress in today’s globalized and fast-paced society; the wider the variety of personalities within a company’s workforce, the higher its likelihood of constantly developing innovative ideas and solutions, and hence the more successful it becomes. The mix of personalities also enables it to consider and amalgamate a variety of viewpoints for every issue at hand, allowing it to come up with feasible solutions that appeal to multiple groups of people.
Despite this, implementing quotas inevitably gives rise to a range of problems. Quotas fail to take into account the different needs of various sectors; for example, the nature of certain industries is such that there is inherently a much higher percentage of males in relation to females, hence it is only natural for company boards to consist mainly of males. Upsetting this balance will only lead to inefficiency, as talents may not be fully utilized as a result of such quotas. Economically wise, setting quotas would also upset the balance of demand and supply in the free market achieved by the ‘invisible hand’, causing a loss of societal welfare. Implementing a minimum percentage of females that is higher than the existing figure inevitably causes a surplus of candidates vying for a fixed number of board positions, resulting in many existing candidates’ inability to secure a position and hence giving rise to problems such as an inefficient allocation of jobs and possibly higher unemployment. This would be particularly detrimental to Singapore as competition for jobs is already stiff due to its large labour force and small economy. Given its major limitations, quotas are only applicable to Singapore in the short run, and cannot be implemented as a permanent measure.
Another possible solution is for the government to encourage voluntary target-setting by companies, under the assumption that companies would take up the initiative and responsibility of implementing this measure. The idea is to cultivate incentive and instill the culture of appointing more females onto the board in the long run. For example, the 30 per cent Club in the UK—consisting of a group of chairmen from prominent global companies—voluntarily commits to bringing more women onto its companies’ boards with a self-declared target of 30 per cent, serving as a concrete example that companies with more women on their boards are still able to perform well financially. Such a measure would be both beneficial and sustainable in the long run, as it allows companies themselves to realize the benefits of appointing more female leaders, thus instilling initiative in them to continue doing so, rather than forcing them to do so via the implementation of quotas.
However, statistics seem to indicate that Singapore lacks the culture of appointing women to leadership positions—the percentage of females on executive boards have consistently remained below 7% over the years, despite females making up over 40% of the workforce since 2001. Rather, the stereotype of women as ‘domestic homemakers’ still prevails—a recent study found that the 3 organisations (out of 65) that have at least half of their boardrooms made up of female directors are under industries traditionally dominated by females due to their characteristic of ‘caretaking.’ Given local circumstances, implementing the policy of voluntary target-setting would be rather ineffective, as no company would take up the initiative to change its inherent mindset and practice.
Hence, while the policy is ideal, it is not yet ingrained in Singapore’s culture and needs to be cultivated in the long run. In this case, temporary quotas of around 15% should be imposed temporarily to kick start the system; thereafter, assuming that research proves true and companies start performing better under a higher percentage of female board directors, they would then be automatically motivated to keep up this practice in order to achieve even better results in the future. At the same time, additional measures should be implemented to minimize the problems of self-efficacy common amongst women in general. Studies have shown women to be naturally more reserved and reticent than their male counterparts and are thus less likely to apply for or get appointed to leadership positions.
Nevertheless, studies have also shown that extraversion is a characteristic that can be trained and adopted at any point in one’s life; hence, the solution to this problem lies in grooming women to be more effective leaders—for example, letting experienced directors take them under their wings. This would allow women to be better equipped for leadership positions and also cause companies to be more willing to appoint them onto boards, thereby developing a culture of a higher percentage of women heading executive boards in Singapore. While there is a possibility of the unwillingness of experienced directors to take on such a responsibility, the government can introduce incentives (such as monetary compensation) to effectively induce initiative in these directors.
In conclusion, in order for the issue to be solved in Singapore, a long-term mindset change must be implemented. Quotas can be used as a catalyst to start the ball rolling; however, it can only ever be a short-term measure as it will inevitably lead to inefficiency and dissent in the long term. Thereafter, the government should encourage voluntary target-setting by companies, coupled with additional measures to ensure that women are well-trained to be effective leaders, thereby enabling women to be sufficiently represented while maintaining the efficiency of companies.