Interview with Christina Ong and Teo Swee Lian

Mrs Christina Ong is a non-executive board member of Singapore Telecommunications Limited, Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation Limited, SIA Engineering Company Limited, Singapore Tourism Board and Trailblazer Foundation Ltd. She is a Partner of Allen & Gledhill LLP as well as Co-Head of its Financial Services Department. She also sits on the boards of companies and entities which are owned by Allen & Gledhill LLP.

Ms Teo Swee Lian is a non-executive board member of Singapore Telecommunications Limited, AIA Group Ltd and Avanda Investment Management Pte Ltd.

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SOME COMPANIES SAY THEY DON’T WANT WOMEN DIRECTORS JUST BECAUSE OF THEIR GENDER – SKILLS MUST COME FIRST. DO YOU AGREE?

Christina Ong: Boards must look at the diversity of skills on the board first. Gender won’t necessarily feature, but it should not be excluded. One should have some protocols for looking at candidates; so boards should not just look for male candidates, they should look for the right skill sets to fit the board.

WHAT INFLUENCE DO WOMEN DIRECTORS HAVE ON COMPANIES?

Teo Swee Lian: There have been studies that show women are more risk-aware. Women tend to have honed this skill set to a better level. So there is the old joke that if it had been Lehman Sisters instead of Lehman Brothers, would the company have failed?

ARE THERE INDUSTRIES THAT ARE LESS SUITED TO WOMEN DIRECTORS?

Christina Ong: Some may think there are companies in certain industries that women may be less suited for – say, engineering. But companies in different industries can be as gender‑diverse as they want to be. Even an engineering company gets involved in lot of things apart from day to day engineering. It goes into acquisitions, it goes into joint ventures etc. As a lawyer, I believe I could add value. You don’t necessarily want only engineers or people with an engineering background on the board.

WHAT PRACTICAL STEPS SHOULD CHAIRMEN TAKE TO BRING ABOUT MORE DIVERSE BOARDS?

Teo Swee Lian: Boards, nominating committees and chairmen should cast their nets much wider than their inner circle.

A well-run board and nominating committee looks at skill sets the company needs. If the company is moving into a different area, such as undertaking acquisitions abroad or having problems with high staff turnover, then it needs to look for someone with that experience or a proven track record in that area.

Start with a wider circle, go beyond friends, and look outside Singapore. If the company uses a search firm, tell them what’s needed in terms of the skill set or diverse views.

If the candidates you find include a woman or someone who brings diverse views from a different country or a minority, that’s even better. You might even want to specify to search firms, if you use them, that they should include women in the list of candidates.

“Some may think there are companies in certain industries that women may be less suited for – say, engineering. But companies in different industries can be as gender-diverse as they want to be.” – Christina Ong

HOW MUCH SHOULD SHAREHOLDERS AGITATE FOR CHANGE?

Teo Swee Lian: What’s really going to put the issue on the table is if big shareholders or stakeholders companies care about are asking the question.

Christina Ong: Stakeholders have not exercised their influence enough. In the Western countries, they are very strong on corporate responsibility and gender diversity; shareholder groups may have gender diversity reflected in their voting instructions. When they exercise their voting power, they make it known that they expect to see a board that is diverse. And if these stakeholders say they want to see a diverse board – because their customers are diverse and the board should reflect the diversity of the customers – the stakeholders can influence the board’s behaviour.

WHAT ROLE DO CONSUMERS PLAY IN PROMOTING GENDER DIVERSITY?

Teo Swee Lian: If your company sells products or services, chances are that at least half of your customers are women. Shouldn’t you have some people in senior positions and on boards who can share their perspective of what women customers want?

Much more needs to be done to raise the awareness of boards and nominating committees, and the ‘opinion multipliers’ outside the company that boards and nominating committees listen to.

It’s now very common to have companies declare they don’t have factories in places with no strong child labour laws, or they don’t source their coffee beans from places which aren’t sustainable. So you have to start asking questions about women directors. Those are the types of conversations that may make a board sit up and do something.

ARE THERE ENOUGH WOMEN WHO WANT TO BE DIRECTORS IN SINGAPORE?

Teo Swee Lian: There are people who are able, but not necessarily willing. When women retire, they have more time to contribute to boards. But by that time they might want to do volunteer work. Some of them might have grandchildren they want to look after. On the other hand, retired men want to continue doing something that allows them to still contribute from a work point of view, or to have a certain status. But having said that, there are also many women who want to continue to put their professional skills and experiences to good use by serving on boards post retirement.

Christina Ong: Taking on board responsibilities is not the holy grail for women who retire, whereas men look for something after retirement very much like what they have been doing – managing their firms and being in positions of control.

“Much more needs to be done to raise the awareness of boards and nominating committees, and the ‘opinion multipliers’ outside the company that boards and nominating committees listen to … So you have to start asking questions about women directors. Those are the types of conversations that may make a board sit up and do something.” – Teo Swee Lian

SHOULD WOMEN PROMOTE THEMSELVES MORE?

Christina Ong: Women who are interested, should, especially if they feel they could add value.

Teo Swee Lian: In Asian culture, women might be reluctant to promote themselves, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many board-ready women. They might worry that they will be perceived as shrill, overly ambitious or neglecting the family, but men are usually not judged in this way.

IS IT ENOUGH TO JUST HAVE SENIOR WOMEN IN MANAGEMENT ROLES WITHOUT HAVING WOMEN DIRECTORS?

Christina Ong: It’s different. For example, many listed companies have a good representation of women in senior management. But having women representation on their boards is important too.

I look at the contributions of women in senior management. And I myself bring along a different perspective when taking a view on issues. For example, a lady on the remuneration committee may look at remuneration and contributions through a different lens than a male director.

Teo Swee Lian: There’s a big difference between the role of the board and the senior management. One doesn’t compensate for the other. You can’t say that just because you have women on the C-suite you don’t need women directors. They perform different functions. Ideally, you would have a blend of both.

SHOULD QUOTAS BE IMPLEMENTED?

Christina Ong: I think there is a danger of mandating tokenism. “There’s a quota I have to fill and therefore I’ll just get a lady.” I don’t know if that’s the right approach.

I read in an article that International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde had previously said she didn’t believe in quotas. But she has had a re-think and that maybe quotas should be imposed because gender diversity is not happening.

Teo Swee Lian: Having been a regulator, before you come out with a policy or a rule, you will think whether or not there is a market failure. And usually if the market can take care of this particular risk or this particular gap, that is actually the best solution. But sometimes the market might need a nudge, so while I’m not in favour of quotas, if it really takes too long or if there really isn’t enough awareness in the minds of people, then the threat of a quota might actually be a catalyst that’s needed.

For more interviews with board chairmen and directors, please see DAC’s report ‘Speaking with the Boards‘.

Speaking with the Boards‘ is a supplement to DAC’s report ‘Women on Boards: Tackling the Issue‘ launched in October 2016.