Q&A: Mildred Tan: “If diversity in teams matters, diversity in leadership must matter too”

Author: Kate Whitehead | Date: 4 May 2016

Head of advisory services at EY Singapore on raising awareness of the importance of gender equality

When Mildred Tan chaired the Diversity Task Force in 2013, women held fewer than one in ten directorships in Singapore Exchange-listed organisations. That figure has since increased slightly, but it still trails Australia (17.3 per cent) and the UK (19 per cent) by a long way. Now, Tan is actively involved in increasing awareness about the importance of diversity and inclusiveness in Singapore.
Why is gender diversity such a hot issue now?
Given today’s increasingly globalised and competitive business landscape, it makes sense for organisations to optimise their talent. Diverse teams are proven to stimulate innovation, reduce the risk of groupthink (a tendency within organisations to promote the view of the dominant group), and lead to more robust problem solving. And if diversity in teams matters, diversity in leadership must matter too.
 
It is in every organisation’s best economic interest to attract, optimise and retain talent in all forms, including fully utilising the talents of women. This is advocated not just out of a sense of fairness but to make sure that the very best minds - men and women alike - are brought together to address complex business challenges. Even though women make up more than half the world’s population, they have long been overlooked as a vital talent resource that contributes to economic and business growth.
 
You have been actively working to increase the number of women on boards. What progress has been made and is Singapore ahead of other Asian countries in this regard?
Research has shown that in Singapore, female representation on boards has increased from eight per cent in 2012 to 9.5 per cent in 2015. This is encouraging news, particularly as Singapore does not have a quota for female representation on boards. To be clear, women in Singapore are not perceived as a disadvantaged or marginalised group. Therefore the country’s approach to gender equality is founded on the principle of meritocracy and equal opportunities for men and women.
 
Even without special measures such as quotas, women in Singapore have made rapid and significant progress over the last few decades and have been able to participate at all levels. That said, there is still room for improvement for board gender diversity among organisations here, judging from findings by the Diversity Action Committee that across Asia, Singapore still lags behind Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and China on this front.
 
What hopes and plans do you have for the future for gender equality?
The World Economic Forum has said that it would take at least 80 years to achieve gender parity in the workplace. It is expected that creating more awareness would accelerate the pace at which we close this gender gap. We have embarked on several initiatives at EY to help make this happen. In 2015, more than 30 per cent of our new partners globally were women. We launched the Women. Fast forward campaign which reinforced the economic imperative of gender parity and recommended three accelerators that can enable organisations and individuals to play their part in creating gender parity. These are illuminating the path of leadership, speeding up company culture change with progressive corporate policy, and building supportive environments by working to eliminate conscious and unconscious bias.