The case has been made for the economic value of gender-diverse boards. I myself have argued previously that diversity and inclusion must be a business imperative for both boards and CEOs. We’ve seen an increasing number of studies prove, again and again, that gender diversity on boards can contribute to more robust decision-making, governance and stakeholder value — all of which translate to higher growth, profits and investment returns.
So, what exactly is holding us back?
Today, I find it less of a supply issue, with organisations like BoardAgender building a pipeline of talented female directors who have been mentored and are equipped to step up and contribute in their areas of expertise. Nevertheless, we know that women only hold 19.7 per cent of board seats among the 100 largest listed companies on the Singapore Exchange (SGX) as of 1 January 2022. We are still far from aspirational targets. Most companies have less-than-equal representation, with only one female board director at the table.
The reality, I opine, is that corporate governance is not easy. A board’s role is to make the best decisions for its organisation. However, effective decisions sometimes require different perspectives, which might be a source of individual tension and even disagreement. Nobody likes conflict.
In some cases, one might think it would be easier to avoid conflict and thus pick people who will get decisions passed quickly. To have directors who, perhaps, don’t raise too many questions or whose thinking is similar to the rest of the board.
This is the mindset that requires changing. Proper governance often demands healthy, productive discussions on boards, even if that means some degree of divergence. Having fair process in governance creates spaces for authentic, equitable and inclusive engagement, and builds clarity about decisions, allowing an organisation to progress. Over time, this leads to greater stakeholder value.
The real issue is how to help people and aspiring directors familiarise themselves with navigating group dynamics, and how to continue to bring a diverse pool of talent into the boardroom that works together, despite their differences.
This is where expanding one’s networks before becoming a board member is key. Therefore, I would like to recommend that aspiring female directors find opportunities to get involved with not-for-profits as early as possible, as this will allow them to broaden both their skills and experience rapidly.
Being a board member is learning to be a team player in a way that’s different from being an executive. The more teams you have experience playing on, the more equipped you’ll be to serve on a board.
Mentors can also be invaluable along the journey. A mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor, who can challenge you, nudge you out of your comfort zone, and keep you accountable for making progress in critical areas, including how to manage board relationships down the line.
Consider finding a diverse range of director mentors, especially those who are not like yourself. BoardAgender’s Mentoring Programme for Aspiring Women Directors, whose laser-focussed screening process to match mentees to the right mentor, can be a helpful resource here.
Finally, peer mentoring is also an effective option, where people at a similar stage of their careers support each other through knowledge and skills transfer. It may be a one-on-one relationship or in a group, but these sessions will allow you to learn from others on a similar journey, share your own experiences and the self-reflection within a communal setting will help your progression as a director as you familiarise yourself with group dynamics.
The bottom line remains the same: the next step in future-proofing our companies and building more gender-diverse boards lies in realising that conflict can be a boon, not a bane, as you become increasingly comfortable with discomfort.
Karen Loon sits on the executive committee of BoardAgender, an initiative by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations. She was formerly PwC’s Singapore and Asia-Pacific Diversity Leader, and a member of its Global Diversity Leadership Team and Global Financial Services Diversity Steering Committee.
First published in the print edition of The Peak Magazine, June/July 2022