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Keynote Address At The UBS Asia Diversity Conference 2008 "Building The Leadership Pipeline In Asia" By Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, Senior Minister Of State For Finance And Transport, On Friday, 18 April 2008, 2.15 pm, UBS Raffles Auditorium

18 Apr 2008

Mr Rory Tapner
Chairman and CEO for UBS Asia Pacific

Mr Gerald Chan
Country Head and CEO for UBS Singapore

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and gentlemen,

1. First of all, let me congratulate UBS for setting up this Conference as a platform for the exchange of ideas relating to diversity in Asia. This is almost like a homecoming event as I spent some years at the now-defunct Swiss Bank Corporation.

2. Traditionally, diversity in the workplace has been seen simply as an employment equity issue. Over time, its scope and definition has been broadened to encompass the inclusion of many attributes. Increasingly, diversity is being recognised as a critical factor to an organization's bottom line. Why is this so? Diversity has gone beyond employment equity to nurturing an environment that values the differences and maximises the potential of all employees - one that stimulates employee creativity and innovativeness. Diversity also speaks of providing equal opportunity to those who may be disadvantaged. Embracing diversity is now crucial to organizational excellence and success.

3. Whilst the topic of diversity is a broad one, what I will like to focus on today is building the women leadership pipeline. What is the link to diversity? Since time immemorial, the employee has been conceived and referred to as a male, and the female is a variant, who will now, in the spirit of diversity, matter to organizations. Likewise, many a politician is male, but again, societies have wised up to the benefits of completing strategic leadership with women's contributions at the very top. We should not simply have diversity for diversity's sake.

4. Nonetheless, let me not dwell on his-tory but instead begin by asking a question. Are women in the world today given sufficient opportunities to achieve their full potential? My answer would be "No". There is definitely more room to develop a larger pool of talented women leaders in business, politics and other spheres of society.

5. Today, no longer can gender be seen merely as a soft social or human rights issue as it has a real economic impact. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP for short), estimated that in the Asia-Pacific region, the opportunity cost from a lack of female labour force participation is as much as US$47 billion of output per year.

Women - Progress and Achievements

6. It is without doubt that women have progressed significantly over the years. The knowledge-based global economy opens up new and greater opportunities for women. Women's communication skills and management styles are increasingly recognised as critical and relevant to enhancing an organization's productivity and competitiveness. In addition, access to resources such as education and employment has enabled women to contribute to their country's economic development.

7. Education is the most fundamental tool towards empowering women in all spheres of society. Singapore women are now better educated. Women now make up half of Singapore's student population in tertiary institutions and are well-represented in traditionally male-dominated courses such as engineering, accountancy and mathematics.

8.Singaporean women are therefore able to pursue subjects of choice and interest rather than conforming to gender stereotypes. In a nutshell, very few are being denied the opportunity to receive a propereducation.

9. It is not surprising that with more women better educated, the employment rate for women in Singapore has similarly been rising over the past 16 years. In 1991, just over half of females aged 25 to 64 were in employment. This rose to 64% as at June 2007 (over 16 years). Although the female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) of 54% still lagged that of the males at 77%, the gap has narrowed over the decade.

10.Likewise, the gender income gap has narrowed over the years. In 2006, the median monthly income for full-time employed females was 86% that of males, inching up from the 83% a decade ago. I am also encouraged that females within the age group of 25 to 29 actually earned higher median gross wage than males in three major occupational groups, namely, managers (about 11% more), professionals (7% more), and sales and service workers (31% more) in June 2006.

11. In both the public and private sectors, more women are climbing up the corporate ladder. As at June 2007, women made up 42% of Managers & Senior Officials, Professionals and Technicians, compared to 36% ten years ago.

12. With more women pursuing careers and moving up the corporate ladder, it is natural to expect more women to be involved at the highest level of participation, for example, as a board director of a company. The reality is that currently, there is still room for much greater representation of women on corporate boards.

13. According to the Corporate Women Directors International 2007 Report, even though over three-quarters (78%) of the Fortune Global 200 largest companies in the world have at least one woman director on their boards, only 11% of all board seats in these companies are occupied by women. In fact, almost half of the companies with women directors (46%) have only one woman director, which may unfortunately suggest that some of the women are there as a form of token gesture to equality.

14. In Singapore too, most corporate boards are still predominantly male although I should add that female representation on board seats has been rising through the years. Statistics from the Singapore Institute of Directors show that only 10% of its members are female. Personally, I hope that more companies would proactively invite qualified women to act as directors. I believe that having more women on boards would also help to add diversity of views and different skill sets. I also hold the view that it is far better to do this proactively than to have to respond to a legislated quota system.

15. While males still dominate the business scene, I am heartened that female business leaders and entrepreneurs have been slowly but surely making their mark. There are many examples of successful women of Asian origin who have reached the top of their respective sectors and excelled. A good example would be Indian-born Ms Indra Nooyi, the CEO for PepsiCo, who was voted as the most powerful women in Fortune 50 Most Powerful Women in Business 2007 ranking.

16. Locally, we have our own role models - the current Group Chief Executive Officer of SingTel, one of Asia's largest telecommunications companies, Ms Chua Sock Koong, as well as successful female entrepreneur, Miss Olivia Lum who founded Hyflux, one of Asia's leading water and fluid treatment companies.

17. Female representation in Parliament has also been increasing. When I entered Parliament 11 years ago, there were only four electedfemale Members of Parliament. We then grew from the 10 elected in 2001 to 17 in May 2006. This represented a whopping 70% jump in political participation and accounted for a commendable 20% share of the total.

18. But someone was quick to remind me "it's not 50%"! Based on data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), as at end 2007, Singapore was ranked 36 out of 188 countries in terms of the percentage of women in the Lower House. We are above the world average and ahead of developed nations such as Canada, the UK, the US, Korea and Japan.

19. Our female MPs have not confined ourselves to the traditional women's issues but tackled a wide range of matters from inflation to education; healthcare policies, to safety of workers, to helping low-wage workers secure fair terms and conditions of employment, and providing for old age.

20. Nonetheless, while we have made some progress, there is still more that we can learn from ot her countries on how to motivate greater numbers of women to take on a political role. Such a change may take time, but we are committed to this long-term effort. I am optimistic that as our country develops, more women will take on this responsibility as well.

Building a Leadership Pipeline

21. So far, I have alluded to some of the necessary conditions that must exist in order to have a functioning and effective pipeline.

Firstly, why the need for a pipeline ie. an articulation of the need for such leadership;

Secondly, what sort of a pipeline is needed ie. the creation of opportunities for such leaders to be nurtured and to flourish,

Thirdly, how to ensure good quality flow through pipeline ie. women are given equal access to both education and economic opportunities; and

Fourthly, how to overcome plumbing problems ie. the identification of impediments to the realization of such potential for both women and organizations.

22. Thus far, the statistics are all very encouraging and opportunities are opening up for women to achieve their every goal and at the highest levels.

23. However, despite these achievements, challenges or plumbing problems remain. Even as we champion equal opportunity for women to be educated and to contribute, we must also be mindful of the needs and concerns of working women.

24. It is certainly not easy for women to harmonise their multi-variate responsibilities at home and at work. Statistics have shown that women generally spend more of their non-paid work time on family, domestic activities and elder care than men. Some subsequently drop out of the labour force to care for the family. This is not an easy decision for women and their families to make, considering the time and money they have invested in education and training. The Government and other organizations should therefore actively embrace family-friendly policies and provide flexible work arrangements and family support services so as to retain their female talent, and attract women back to the workforce.

Worklife Harmony to attract and retain talent

25. With increasing globalisation and technology-driven advances, human capital has become the prime source of competitive advantage. The push is towards more knowledge, more innovation areas where more female talent can be found. Having the right talent is crucial and to come up tops in the war for talent, it is important for an organization to market itself as theEmployer of Choice. Men and women nowadays are looking for employers that provide them with a value proposition to manage their work responsibilities, alongside their personal and family needs.

26. Research has shown that work-life harmony is now a strategic business tool to attract and retain talent - both male and female. A recent worldwide poll of 138 recruiting firms by the Association of Executive Search Consultants found 85% had candidates who rejected an executive job offer in the past year because they couldn't get the flexibility they were seeking. The inaugural National Work-life Harmony Study jointly commissioned by MCYS and the National Family Council also confirmed that with supportive employers, employees exhibited greater job loyalty, satisfaction, engagement and performance. The companies experience the benefit of lower job attrition. So work life harmony is not just a HR strategy; it is a win-win proposition for both employees and employers.

27. The changing workforce demographics and expectations of employees, especially the younger workers, are shaping manpower policies. The Families and Work Institute in the US has found that, while employees today are working longer and harder, and in more demanding jobs than employees 25 years ago, there is a downward trend in aspirations. Thirty-four percent of women and 21% of men have reduced their aspirations. They prefer not to move into jobs with more responsibilities. And two-thirds of executives reduced their aspirations because of personal and family sacrifices.

28. To address these challenges, companies are altering traditional incentives and career management programs. They are aligning their business strategy with worklife preferences so as to attract and retain talents, regardless of gender, age and marital status.

29. I am happy to know that UBS recognises the close relationship between employees' home-life and motivation at work. UBS has in place good work-life balance initiatives that aim to provide support to the changing concerns and priorities of employees, enabling them to not just excel at work, but to handle the differing priorities due to family commitments. I understand work is underway to enable women who have taken time off for family reasons to transit back into work.

Singapore's Worklife Harmony strategy

30. Some of the plumbing problems can be addressed by the Government. In 2004, the Government introduced a number of measures including extending maternity leave from 8 to 12 weeks and introducing childcare leave. As an employer, the Government took the lead by accommodating the 5-day work week where possible.

31. Various other schemes were also initiated to promote work-life harmony and flexible work arrangements. such as the Work-Life Works (WoW!) initiative which helps companies defray the costs of investing in family-friendly work arrangements, and a Tripartite Committee on Work-Life Strategy comprising more than 10 member organizations from the Government, unions, employer, employee and business associations representatives, which was set up in 2000 to engage employers, unions and the HR industry in promoting flexible work arrangements. There is also the Alliance for Fair Employment Practices which is gaining support among companies.

32. Ultimately, it's mindset changes we are after, especially so for women in top positions.


33. So what is my wishlist? Letme return to my pipeline analogy. Firstly, articulating the need for and the usefulness of female participation at the highest level should not be mere rhetoric. Decision-makers must make it a reality. They must take it upon themselves to examine their assessment basis, particularly to avoid the risk of trying to measure females against male benchmarks or traditional stereotypes. They should consciously ensure that they choose widely, and not unwittingly exclude women from opportunities to lead such as presuming that women do not like global responsibilities or shun positions that require travelling.

34. Secondly, although I am personally against quotas and am all for meritocracy especially for leadership positions, I believe there is benefit to structuring the pipeline in such a way that there is a minimal level of female participation at the middle level. The Chinese Communist Party has done this to good effect and today, they are successfully building a critical mass to select women leaders from. Hence, organizations should pay attention to the gender profile of their middle managers and if it is a skewed one, they should examine how they can improve the employment parameters to attract women.

35. Thirdly, we women ourselves have a role to play too. We need to network a whole lot more, beyond mere membership of professional or special interest groups. We need to be prepared to share experiences, provide guidance to younger women and help create or identify opportunities for fellow women to rise to leadership positions. The Women's Register by the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO) is one such platform and there should be many more. I am not quite sure I'll call it the `old girls network' but you get the drift. This will ensure that even with plumbing problems, women can be supported emotionall y and socially and remain in the pipeline.

36. Finally, we need to recognise that we have taken great strides in emphasising the importance of work-life balance. However, work-life harmony frequently gets tripped up not by the lack of a formal work-life strategy within an organization but rather the unwillingness of supervisors and peers to accommodate. This subtle disapproval usually translates into a fear of losing one's job. Hence, my wish is that all supervisors and leaders will truly practice what they preach, and provide real support especially for mothers with young children.


37. Women are the best-kept secrets in today's corporate world and society. Women make excellent leaders too. To continue building the leadership pipeline in Singapore and Asia, it is important for organizations and key decision makers to embrace gender diversity and develop a platform to allow women to realise their fullest potential. The end result of such diversity is a working environment that is open and inclusive, where complementary perspectives can contribute to the creativity that is so needed for an organization to succeed, and to retain talent in a sustainable manner.

38. On that note, let me wish all of you a fruitful exchange of ideas in today's conference. Thank you.