Progress of women on boards still at snail’s pace
Women still make up only a fraction of board chairs in Southeast Asia, even if they make up on average 2.7% more of board seats now, underscoring the need for intervention from investors who can exercise voting rights and engage with investees to drive diversity.
In the region, 17.1% of board seats were held by women in 2021, but only 5.3% of board chairs were female, according to the seventh edition of Deloitte’s Women in the Boardroom report, this year titled ‘Progress at a snail’s pace’.
Globally, the picture isn’t much rosier with an average of 19.7% of boards and 6.7% of chairs being held by women. The numbers mark a 2.8 percentage point and 1.4 percentage point respective increase from three years ago.
At this rate, a level approaching parity will be reached in 2045, the report published February 7 wrote.
“While this is unacceptably slow, there actually has been a slight acceleration in the pace of change. Our last report showed parity being reached by 2052, meaning the timeline has been cut by nearly a decade,” the report wrote.
The report also revealed a disconnect between women holding roles on boards and at the executive level such as chief executive officers (CEOs) and chief financial officers (CFOs).
Among CEOs, only 5% were women, representing only a 0.6% increase from 2018.
Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the research showed that companies with women CEOs had significantly more women on their boards than those run by men - 33.5% as opposed to 19.4%, respectively.
Similarly, companies with female chairs were more likely to have more women on boards - 30.8% compared with 19.4% in companies with male chairs.
Gender diversity on the boards in Southeast Asia - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – outperformed the Asia average with 17.1% of women on boards compared with Asia’s 11.7%.
While most of the Southeast Asian nations had better percentage increases than the 2.8% global change, Indonesia has a 1% decline in the proportion of women represented on boards.
In terms of board chairs, there was dispersal in the levels of improvement across each Southeast Asian country. Indonesia had a 2.4% decrease, while Malaysia and Thailand reported positive 2.6% and 1.2% changes respectively.
Singapore led the pack with the highest percentage of women chief executives at 13.1%, while Thailand followed close behind at 11.6%.
However, the report also highlighted that there were fewer women serving on more boards, which Deloitte measures using a stretch factor metric.
The higher the stretch factor, the greater the number of board seats the director holds.
In 2021, the stretch factor for women grew to 1.30 from 1.26 in 2018, indicating that each woman on average was holding more board seats. In contrast, men have a stretch factor of 1.17.
In Southeast Asia, the stretch factor was 1.17 for women, an increase from 2018, the report said without specifying the stretch factor then.
There was also a decline in the average tenure among women directors, which slipped from 5.5 to 5.1 years, compared with men’s which fell from eight to 7.6 years globally.
The average tenure in Southeast Asia among women fell as well, with that of Singapore’s slipping the most sharply to 4.4 years from five in 2018.
“Institutional support, in areas like equal pay and flexible work arrangements, and mentorship and sponsorship programs for women are critical to accelerate the progress of having more women in leadership,” Seah Gek Choo, partner at the audit and assurance team at Deloitte Southeast Asia said in a statement.
Institutional investors naturally have a role to play in driving change as environmental, social, and governance continues to be a growing trend in the asset management industry.
“For us as an asset manager, there is a direct link between weak corporate governance and the balance of power. For example, executive teams where women account for more than 30% of the total are more likely to outperform those with fewer or no women,” said Paul Milon, head of stewardship for Asia Pacific at BNP Paribas Asset Management.
“Our voting policy has had an explicit provision on gender diversity. We oppose all male candidates for director if there are no women on the investee company’s board worldwide,” he told AsianInvestor.
“For other markets, we asked for at least one woman to be present on the board in 2020. These include Asia and Latin America. This year, we are increasing the threshold to 15%,” said Milon.
“We will make an exception when at least 10% of the board is gender-diversified and when we see meaningful steps in the right direction, including a commitment to reach 15% within two years.”