YOU HAVE OBVIOUSLY BEEN SUCCESSFUL AT THAT. YET YOU’RE MALE, CHINESE, AND PRESUMABLY YOU ALSO HAVE THIS CULTURAL BAGGAGE. HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THIS?
I don’t have such baggage because at home I am surrounded by women. I have a wife and two daughters. As far as I can remember, I’ve never, in choosing somebody either for a management or a board position, looked at the women any differently.
HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT SELECTING BOARD MEMBERS?
If we were going to replace one of our two female Board members, we would probably actively look for female candidates.
We have a nominating committee and Board members are asked for references, and we tap on references from other GLCs [government-linked companies] and Temasek. We also use executive search firms. I think a very good example is our Hong Kong Board, which is not even listed. We went out of our way, including using executive search firms, to search for a woman for our Board. We specifically asked them to search for a female board director because our Hong Kong Board was all male.
We now have women on our Board also in China. We appointed Jeanette Wong to chair DBS Taiwan and we appointed Tan Su Shan to chair DBS Indonesia, because we thought they were the best people to chair the boards. We were under no pressure because those boards are not listed. This is proactive.
ARE THERE MORE CONCRETE, TANGIBLE WAYS TO ENCOURAGE CHAIRMEN TO FORM MORE DIVERSE BOARDS?
I think it’s the duty of every board to ensure that its company does well. Over time, if you begin to see that gender-diverse boards tend to be better at reaching out to customers and engendering a better corporate culture within their organisation, including showing women within the company that they are represented at the highest level, all these should lead companies that don’t have women on their boards to think about: Why not?
To put it very simply, what do they have to lose? What do I have to lose, rather than what do I have to gain, by having women on my board?
If you are looking to fill a board seat, you can have a woman on merit who also gives you the additional perspective of a woman. It has to be a plus. If you insist it’s not important, it’s to your detriment.
SHOULD INVESTORS PLAY A GREATER ROLE IN DEMANDING A MORE DIVERSE BOARD?
Shareholders are increasingly looking at diversity. If you are on a board with no women, they will increasingly write in and ask questions. So, that’s going to bring about change.
WOULD YOU ADVOCATE A QUOTA?
I personally am against a quota. The last thing you want to do is fill a board vacancy with a woman just because she is a woman. You will contribute to a perception that it’s really not a good idea to have women on the board because they are only there to meet a quota.
I want to see every woman on the board stand equally, have the same voice as all other board members, as they deservedly should have, and be respected and have their views respected. You should not trade quality for diversity because then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
That said, in today’s world, particularly in a country like Singapore where the capabilities of men and women have converged in the workplace, we have women in leadership positions in every profession. So, you really have to ask yourself, if it’s not a minus to have a woman on the board, if it’s not a disadvantage, wouldn’t it add to the strength of the company to choose somebody on merit who is also a woman?
If you are not prepared to change and you want to be stuck in your old ways where you think male dominance is the answer to your board, then it’s to your detriment. Diversity is good for boards.
WHAT DO YOU SAY TO COMPANIES THAT FIND EXECUTIVE SEARCH FIRMS ARE TOO EXPENSIVE?
Maybe for some companies they are too expensive. It varies from company to company. For us it is money well spent because we get them to look for both male and female candidates. But usually with a bit of effort your own board members can find candidates. Our two female candidates on the main Board were not found by executive search – we reached out to them.
You also have to look at the size of the company. For a smaller size company, do you really need to overpower your board with high profile CEOs or managing partners of accounting or law firms? A successful professional in many ways could add value to your board. If your criteria are the same when looking for both men and women for your board, it will be a lot easier to find women.
WHAT DO YOU SAY TO CHAIRMEN WHO SAY THERE AREN’T ENOUGH WOMEN CANDIDATES? ARE THOSE CHAIRMEN NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH?
I don’t want to be judgemental. I can only say that if you believe and you see the benefit, the value, of having women on your board, then you will need to proactively start planning for it and start looking around.
This is not something you can resolve in a day or two. So, if you have board members who are going to retire in one or two years’ time, you have to start thinking about it.
SOME COMMENTATORS SAY WOMEN DON’T PROMOTE THEMSELVES WELL ENOUGH AND THEY NEED TO BE OUT THERE MORE. DO YOU AGREE?
Well, I think Asian culture generally doesn’t encourage women to be too upfront. Going out, giving out name cards and being more upfront with your availability for boards may help, but I don’t approach women to join the boards just because they are upfront.
From a rational standpoint, you don’t want the same women sitting on all the boards. You want to expand the pool. It’s important for you to try new names, new people. That’s what nominating committees are for – to identify good candidates, not necessarily proven candidates.