Gender diversity has never been more important or relevant as it is today as the world’s changes are accelerating.
Grant Thornton’s Women in Business report has been tracking gender diversity among the world’s senior management teams for the past 15 years, in which time we have seen the proportion of women leaders steadily increase. In Singapore, the proportion of women in senior management has risen by 10 per cent and nearly 80 per cent of businesses are taking actions to achieve gender parity. However, the ratio of women to men in the boardroom is still far from even. But, why is diversity important?
It Makes Business Sense
It is widely agreed that diversity is a key ingredient for innovation. From a business standpoint, diversity at the management level should be encouraged because it opens doors to different experiences, values, perspectives, and ideas, adding richness to leadership and decision-making. This is particularly relevant the current rapidly changing global business environment. The commercial benefits of women in leadership are well documented: our previous research has shown that among the largest listed companies in the United Kingdom, United States, and India, those with gender diverse boards are outperforming their male-only peers to the tune of US$655 billion annually.
At Grant Thornton, we have a top-down approach to diversity. Director Graham Stirling strongly believes that “One needs diversity to look at the world through a broader lens that is also likely to be more reflective of the client-base and the issues and opportunities they face. Any barriers to diversity, whether in gender, race, or sexuality, will be detrimental to an organisation’s future. Diversity cannot be a “non-negotiable” for an organisation to remain relevant”.
Fairness and Equality
From an equality standpoint, a different and perhaps more compelling argument is that it is unfair to expect women to work as hard as men, and yet offer no clear opportunities for career progression. Likewise, it is discouraging for women to have a lack of female leadership. Female leaders can become important role models and mentors for other women in the workplace, which can have an enormous impact professionally, personally, and psychologically. The Women in Business 2020 report found that one third of businesses in Singapore are providing mentoring and coaching to improve the gender balance in their leadership teams.
Our Senior Manager, Alison Chave, is a strong proponent of ‘seeing is believing’—women are likely to be inspired if they have female role models, as the potential for professional growth appears more apparent and tangible.
Diversity and Merit Should Go Hand in Hand
On the other hand, it is meaningless to place token women in the boardroom and gender blindness should not be the goal. Instead, we need to recognise our differences and acknowledge them in order to unlock innovation in the workplace.
To make a real difference as leaders, women must be promoted based on merit. Laying the groundwork for this will require widespread changes in organisational culture and work policies, such as removing barriers to diversity, giving women equal opportunities to advance their careers, as well as identifying and grooming promising female leaders of the future.
It is also important for women to be able to connect with other women in the workplace. A strong support network as well as flexible working arrangements are particularly important for female professionals who are also primary caregivers for their children, so that they are not forced to choose between their children and their career.
Roadmap to Diverse Leadership
An often cited reason cited for the continued gap in senior leadership is parenthood.
As a young mother, Manager Wei Xin Neo, has experienced first-hand the constraints and struggles of balancing family and career. What has kept her going is the strong support system available such as understanding and adaptive leaders, flexible working arrangements, and an inclusive and respectful work culture. Building an equitable workplace with clear and accessible support systems is crucial in keeping women engaged with the workplace and therefore striving for leadership positions.
Young women embarking on their professional journeys should start by looking for companies that showcase the diversity in their organisational culture, whether through newsletters or social media posts, as well as companies that regularly showcase female managers as presenters and trainers.
Employers who take these issues to heart may well be on their way to driving greater gender diversity—for their own benefit, and for the sectors in which they work.
Sze Min is an Audit director at Grant Thornton Singapore, with over 15 years’ experience. She has spent her career working in both Singapore and the United Kingdom. At Grant Thornton Singapore Sze Min is a diversity and inclusion champion and leads the firms Women in business subcommittee.
Copyright © 2020 Singapore Institute of Management