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Clamour to Increase Women Board Members

As recent as the 20th century, women were mainly confined to the less skilled tasks like retail, administration, or factory work. Many were homemakers while the husbands went off to be breadwinners. It was towards the later part of the 20th century that it became more apparent that women were getting ahead in the workforce.

Women became more educated, more liberated, and outspoken. More were continuing to work despite having families at home, juggling duties of being wife, mother, and corporate employee. Recently, there was an increase in the number of women who were so committed to their careers that having families no longer took top priority compared to women of previous generations.

Opportunities for women have increased in the public and private sectors. They are recognised for their talent and varied management styles. However, there is still more to be done as the men have been in the hot seats for a long time. Women have a lot to offer and organisations today are starting to realise their worth. Organisations however need to find ways to work out better policies to ensure that they are able to retain female employees.

Women are taking on bigger roles in organisations. Stronger women role models have inspired many females from generation X and Y to take ambitious steps of getting into politics or the boardroom at some point. However, there still seems to be a much lower number of females in many boardrooms.

Barriers to Female Board Representation

The Institute of Certified Public Accounts of Singapore, ICPAS, carried out a survey in August 2011. According to their findings posted on on the challenges faced by female board members, respondents indicated that "gender stereotypes that generate positive bias towards men for board appointments (32 per cent), family commitments (29 per cent), and lack of opportunities (23 per cent). Respondents commented that the old boys' network and the fact that "women spend less time building their network due to family commitments could be contributing factors to the relative dearth of women board members in Singapore."

When comparisons were made across the Asia-Pacific region, it was rare for three or more female directors to be on the board, and that three or more independent directors were almost nonexistent. According to the National University of Singapore's Business School report, women only made up 6.8 per cent of all boardroom positions on Singapore's listed organisations in 2010.

There are women in high-powered seats, not just in politics but in organisations too. There are ways to work around the barriers, by tapping on the strengths of a woman, and working on her weaknesses. These barriers may not come down immediately, but it will help to get you noticed or at least find out why you are not getting into the boardroom as fast as you would like.

Tamar Elkeles, chief learning officer and vice president of learning and development at Qualcomm.

Need for Mentors

Tamar Elkeles, is chief learning officer, CLO, and vice-president of learning and development at Qualcomm, an organisation ranked as number 33 on Fortune's Top 100 best companies to work for and which has 18,000 employees worldwide. In 2010, she won the 2010 CLO of the Year given by the Chief Learning Officer magazine.

Elkeles feels that there are different dropout points and women need to better manage those dropout points. In her PhD dissertation, she was looking at why there are so few women going into engineering. She found that in school, at different stages, women should be mentored early in life and be given support at every stage. This applies for women in the business context as well.

There are those who feel that women may not be as effective once they have children and become working mothers. Elkeles says: "I think as women are better executives when we have children and have to manage more. I have a nine-year old daughter and I believe that my productivity is better as I am trying to manage a lot of things. If I didn't have a job, I may not be as productive. We have more organisation as we have limited time. For example, we have 15 minutes to do homework, because we both have things to do and I find this is a benefit for the child as it helps them to be better organised. When more mothers stay home, the less the role model for girls that women are able to get key positions in the organisation."

She feels that women have more mentors than men as they are more collaborative and they talk to each other. They may not be formal mentors but more like a support team. She says: "Men are less likely to ask for advice. Men do not ask for directions when driving in their car, they are not going to ask for support in their career. Assigning a mentor to a person, male or female, may be contrived. Gender of the mentor does not matter. It is more of who do I align with best, and who can give me the best advice."

Kim Underhill has a different perspective. She is the vice president and general manager of Fabristeel Pte Ltd. She says: "I don't think it's a matter of whether women are looking for mentors or not. In my personal experience, I didn't ask to be mentored. My ex-boss saw potential in me and wanted to guide me. He saw me go through night school for six years, however expectations didn't change at work, and I was still expected to perform at work. I feel it's a two-way street and it's whether the mentor wants to mentor someone, and whether this person wants a mentor. I have one or two staff that I have seen strong potential in. I have one, an extrovert, who voiced that she would like to learn more and asked me to guide her. Again, not to stereotype, the extrovert types tend to be more open to seek mentors, or ask for guidance and help. Asking for help is one of the toughest things to do for anyone."

Andrew Bryant, director of Self Leadership International is an experienced leadership consultant and executive coach.

More Men in Board Room

Andrew Bryant, director of Self Leadership International is an experienced leadership consultant and executive coach. His perspective of why there are more men in the boardroom is that it is a historical paradigm. He feels that it is historical as many boardrooms were set up by male dominated businesses hence it became a boys' club for many years and women didn't necessarily want to be in the boardroom either.

Human beings are tribal as people cluster around people they feel comfortable with and the boardroom can be similar to a formal tribe. There may be some boardrooms where all members are female.

Bryant says: "I remember being laughed at years ago when I was talking to a lady when I first went to Australia about a book club. I asked if I could go, she laughed, and said book clubs are for women. So it does go both ways. It is more a recognition of competency and women should know that they want to be in the boardroom. They need to be well networked and well supported. To get on the board, you foster relationships and mentors who suggest you to do these things. The key is finding the pull factor to get into that. Men have recognised the need to cultivate this. Women do it with women, but they should get male support too. It is not gender specific, it is just reality. It is not the best idea that gets supported but the best supported idea that gets adopted. It is all about influence."

Tara Kimbrell Cole, founding chief executive officer and executive coach of Synovations Pte Ltd agrees with the perspective of it being historically linked. She finds that the role of board members and their fiduciary responsibilities have been substantially shifting. Board members are now responsible for decisions they take.

Cole says: "Historically the board was composed of old friends of company founders, chairmen and CEOs to assure their agreement. The business world has traditionally been dominated by men. Unfortunately, ingrained in the mind of most men is the belief that women think differently and that this thinking threatens the established norms. While the benefits of diverse opinions are universally extolled, there is still considerable resistance to actually addressing them. Global transformation often takes considerable time and happens very gradually."

Kim Underhill, vice president and general manager of Fabristeel Pte Ltd.

Personality or Gender

After speaking with various people, holding many high-level positions, or having dealt with those from senior management, it started to dawn that it may not be so much a gender issue, but a culture issue too. The women who tend to be stronger and more vocal shared similar traits. They seem to be educated overseas, lived overseas, had worked in a multinational organisation or had a foreigner as a boss.

If they did not have those experiences, it was due to their personality as they were extroverts. Their mindsets were different, their confidence levels were higher, they were more vocal about what they wanted in life, and honest about mistakes they may have made on the way to the top. The ability to articulate and express themselves confidently allowed them to be heard and noticed.

Unfortunately, though it may sound stereotypical, those who had not been influenced by western culture and seem stuck to the traditional Asian culture of "being seen and not heard", or those who tend to be introverts were subdued. They had the big dreams, however, it might be due to their being more reserved, and hence they do not speak up about their achievements. This applies to both males and females alike. It is not necessarily gender bias.


Underhill says: "Gender-wise, I don't see any issue. I have worked for multinational companies before, I tend to feel more comfortable. I feel it is more a culture issue than a gender issue. Asians tend to think too much and the issue becomes a non-issue. I have observed that it is more the confidence one has and knowing what one wants. Women like to say that we are treated differently, however I find it is more of knowing what you want and asking for it. It boils down to choice. Many women may tend to choose more supporting roles as they want a simpler work job that allows them to be a wife and mother when they are not in the office."

Solonia Teodros, associate at Burson-Marsteller, is a believer in the need for more women to step up and make a stand in the boardroom. However, she too feels that it is not necessarily gender biasness that may be an issue. She says: "For one thing, there are a number of top management executives both local and international who are females. Particularly in Singapore, I find that public relations is an industry that is very much dominated by females in terms of numbers. Moreover, some of the most inspiring industry figures I have come across are females."

Tara Kimbrell Cole, chief executive officer and executive coach of Synovations Pte Ltd.

Tips for Young Female Executive to get in the Board Room

Kim Underhill says: "Do not chase your dreams if you are not doing your current job to the best of your ability. Your boss will recognise your commitments. Have honest discussions with your boss, ask him or her how else can you improve and do better in your jobs. It is okay to move on if you do not see parallels between what your company wants and what your interests are in terms of growth. That is the fear of many people. The fear of moving on is greater than staying on and being unhappy."

Tara Kimbrell Cole says: "Be eager to attain the goal, but at the same time be mindful of the means. Develop personal mastery. We are all caught in our own mindsets. You must understand your own first, so that you can then comprehend that of others. You should study systems thinking so that you may begin to understand the consequences (intended and unintended) of your decisions and actions."

She feels that young female executives who are overly ambitious may make some mistakes along the way. Cole says: "Don't ever sacrifice your values to get ahead. If you do, you will find that it will prove to be in the end, counterproductive. Develop your short, medium, and long-term critical thinking. By doing this, you will be able to deliver sustainable solutions, rather than merely ineffective short-term fixes to the various challenges you face. Learn about the wider world you live in. It is an excellent source of motivation, will assist you in problem solving, and will move you to be vision and value-led. Vision and valueled executives have been shown to have the greatest stamina and perseverance."

Solonia Teodros does a few things to get herself noticed by top management. She says: "Share positive feedback from clients. Proactively share creative ideas or key insights and trends on relevant topics that are of interest to my team members and clients that speak to the skills I want to demonstrate, for example, analytical research skills."

Author Jane Horan feels that it is better to focus on advice than mistakes. She says: "Find a mentor or sponsor early on in your career. Find ways to talk about achievements, that is, overcome the reluctance to talk about accomplishments. Think about where you want to be in your next, next role. Articulate and share your goal with others. Seek advice, ask for help, reflect, and learn. Finally, actively manage perceptions."

Dr Ann Tan sits on the executive board of the SCWO.

Take Action, Get Noticed

Why is the number of females in the boardroom not going up? Dr Ann Tan, former chief of Foetal Maternal Medicine at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Singapore General Hospital, sits on the executive board of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisation, SCWO, says: "A woman needs to be seen and heard just as a man needs to be in a male dominated industry. She has to be seen more often and heard even louder than the average man. So this definitely takes more effort on the part of the woman. Instead of faint heart never won fair lady, it would be faint heart never climbed the male corporate ladder. She is likely to have to work harder to accomplish more than the average man just to be noticed though at first. Once she is noticed she then has to strive to continually be noticed by consistently performing above average."

So it is likely that the more courage and the determination a woman has, the likelier there will be a push for the need for more women to enter the boardroom. The same will likely apply in politics. Organisations must realise the need to have gender and culture diversities. Women must stop playing the damsel in distress role and learn how to stand up for themselves.

Learn how to maximise your strengths. Do not be afraid to realise your weaknesses and how to improve. Take heed of where your potential failures may lie. The board is a team that collectively makes decisions. They need a team able to look at problems from various perspectives, ranging from finance, marketing, to strategic planning. Having a strong representation of strengths, skills, and experience can lead an organisation to soar. When there is a lack of viewpoints, culture and gender diversity will have a crucial role to play in increasing the effectiveness of the senior management team in the boardroom.

Jane Horan is an author of I wish I'd Known that Earlier in My Career

Tips for Dealing with Politics

Ann Tan says: "Women should try to understand the undercurrents but where possible, stay clear as when elephants fight, the ants get trampled. Try never to burn bridges but to build them constantly with all levels."

Jane Horan says: "Start off, seeing the positive side of workplace politics, build a network early, connect broadly, move away from perfectionism, and realise that work does not speak for itself."

Horan adds that being savvy is a skill when it comes to dealing and navigating around politics. There are both positive and negative politics. She says that the positive definition of organisational politics is when one builds coalitions for the good of the organisation. The negative side of politics is when one builds these coalitions for one's own good. She advises that to be savvy is not difficult as long as one is willing to step out of one's comfort zone, confront one's fears, and overcome prejudices.

In her book I wish I'd Known that Earlier in My Career, Horan shares a few key points:

  1. Make it your goal to ensure that everyone in the organisation is politically savvy.

  2. Create a culture where positive politics operates. Build awareness through workshops, coaching, and mentoring in such things as ethical self-promotion and managing perceptions.

  3. Create advocacy and mentors for all employees - particularly those outside or away from power networks - to ensure that all are connected and visible to decision-makers.

  4. Rewrite job descriptions with savvy vocabulary and redesign management and leadership curriculums to include the development of savvy skills.

  5. Develop orientation programmes and processes for new or newly promoted employees.

  6. Forget performance reviews, encourage conversations.

She believes that by adopting the above methods, there will be many benefits to be reaped due to the positive power of politics.

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