Interview with Sumitri Menon

Ms Sumitri Menon is the Independent Non-Executive Chairman of Micro-Mechanics (Holdings) Ltd.

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DO YOU SEE PARALLELS BETWEEN THE LACK OF GENDER DIVERSITY ON BOARDS OF LISTED COMPANIES AND THOSE IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION?

When I first entered the legal profession all the judges were men. But there are a vast number of suitable and qualified women out there and it wasn’t difficult to find them once we decided we wanted more women judges. I think it’s the same with boards.

The solution may be dialogue and awareness. But I am beginning to think it might be necessary to prescribe for it. Many people argue against quotas, saying they bring tokenism – that a woman is appointed simply because we need to have a woman. But I don’t think that is going to happen, because there are many qualified women and if you are forced to take a woman on your board, you will find the best qualified women.

IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU HESITATE TO RECOMMEND QUOTAS.

Yes, because it’s not really a good thing to be dictating to boards. These are private matters, and companies need to be autonomous when doing these things. But I think if you don’t force a little bit of change, it’s not going to happen.

DO YOU THINK COMPANY BOARDS THAT ARE NOT DIVERSE ARE AUTOMATICALLY LESS WELL RUN?

Every company board wants to be well run. No one will say they don’t want top of the line governance and transparency. No, I don’t think a board that is not gender diverse is automatically less well run. However, many women would qualify and come to the attention of a nominating committee that sets out to identify and appoint the possible members for its board. There are so many qualified and capable women in Singapore and elsewhere. The indication therefore is that the processes of a board which is not gender diverse are not rigorous or are flawed and it may not be functioning optimally.

WHAT IS YOUR REACTION WHEN BOARDS THAT SAY ‘WE ARE ALL MALE, BUT THEY ARE THE BEST PEOPLE FOR THE JOB’?

My questions to them would be “how many women did you interview before you decided that this person was better than that person? Did you shortlist only men? And why did this happen?”

AND TO BOARDS THAT SAY ‘WE DON’T NEED FEMALE DIRECTORS BECAUSE WE HAVE SENIOR FEMALE EXECUTIVES’?

People who say that do not understand the difference in the roles the board and management play.

AND TO BOARDS THAT SAY THEY ARE LOOKING FOR THE BEST CANDIDATES, BUT DON’T FIND ANY WOMEN?

They have limited themselves. The thing is, though, I don’t think anybody does that deliberately. We all like to think of ourselves as having enlightened self-interest and no biases. But research has shown that we all bring our biases to decision-making, and I think that’s what actually happens.

I don’t understand why, if people are looking for the best person for the board, there are not many women. There is a missing link between what people want to do and what is actually happening.

Something is happening that we are not quite clear about, but I assume it’s the biases that people bring to that decision about who to recruit for the board.

“Many people argue against quotas, saying they bring tokenism – that a woman is appointed simply because we need to have a woman. But I don’t think that is going to happen, because there are many qualified women and if you are forced to take a woman on your board, you will find the best qualified women.”

WHAT ELSE IS GETTING IN THE WAY?

I don’t think many boards have accepted that gender diversity makes a big difference to value creation and decision-making. Most boards that have all men probably don’t see that their decision-making may be flawed or may not be the best it could be. Understanding this requires you to say we could be doing a lot better – and most boards think they’re doing perfectly fine now.

IS A LACK OF GENDER DIVERSITY INHERENT IN ASIAN CULTURE?

I hesitate to say it’s our culture. Women have reached very high positions in almost all other regards. They are at ministerial level, they are running companies, and they are doing all kinds of things now.

WHAT IF SINGAPORE BOARDS KEEP GOING THE WAY THEY ARE?

It would be a pity because a lot of talent would be wasted or not fully utilised. We won’t know how much better we could be. A lack of women on boards indicates that we haven’t achieved the best standards. There is something lacking in the processes and decision-making.

MICRO-MECHANICS’ FOUNDER CHRISTOPHER BORCH WAS ORIGINALLY FROM THE UNITED STATES. TO WHAT EXTENT DOES HIS CULTURAL BACKGROUND INFLUENCE YOUR THINKING?

He is a key voice on the board. I think there has been a greater tolerance for open debate and this is positive for our board. There hasn’t been any pressure to defer to him just because he is a founder. He hasn’t brought this kind of culture to the board.

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.