In Focus: Mildred Tan, EY

The Managing Director of Ernst & Young Advisory Pte Ltd shares with Vipanchi her views on Diversity and its impact on business.

By Vipanchi Dinavahi

 

I see diversity and inclusiveness (D&I) on three scales: global, regional and SME. What challenges and opportunities do each present? What recommendations do you have for companies on each scale?

 

Globalisation has changed the way in which business is conducted. As businesses operate cross border, the different perspectives that individuals can contribute as a result of their profiles, experiences, qualifications, expertise and other attributes are even more highly valued than before. Research has shown that diversity and inclusiveness enhance corporate performance; failing to address this could mean missed economic opportunities.

 

For diversity to take root at any level—from global through local—organisations need to understand the business case for diversity and embed it within the DNA of the company. The board and senior management should set the tone right at the top by creating an environment where different perspectives are encouraged and valued.

 

I have been championing the women’s agenda for the past 20 years, primarily because I had noticed this gap in many organisations. In 2003, only half, or 50.9%, of local women were represented in the workforce. But I am pleased to say this has increased by 10% to nearly 60%.

 

"For diversity to take root at any level—from global through local—organisations need to understand the business case for diversity and embed it within the DNA of the company."

 

Where does Singapore stand with diversity?

 

There is growing awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusiveness in Singapore. If you look at developments from the gender diversity perspective, the Diversity Task Force (DTF) in Singapore, which I chaired back then, found that, as at Apr 2013, women held only 8.3% of directorships in Singapore Exchange (SGX)-listed companies. This level of gender representation trails countries such as Malaysia (8.7%), China (9%), Hong Kong (9.4%), Australia (17.3%) and the United Kingdom (19%). On the other hand, 56% of SGX listed companies have all-male boards.

 

Notwithstanding that, Singapore has made progress on this front, but there is clearly more that we can do, given that the business case for diversity and inclusiveness is clear. The DTF research, Gender diversity on boards: A business imperative, highlighted that companies with at least one woman on their board of directors registered some four percentage points more in return on equity than those without gender diversity.

 

As well, EY’s report, Women. Fast Forward: The time for gender parity is now, which surveyed 400 leaders from a cross-section of companies globally, reaffirms the benefitsof gender diversity:

 

• 65% believed that companies with women in senior executive leadership roles achieve better financial performance

• 66% believed that companies with women on their boards achieve better financial performance

• 67% believed that companies with women in senior executive leadership achieve better non-financial performance

• 68% believed that companies with women on their boards achieve better non-financial performance

 

Despite the patriarchal nature of most societies, the above EY report revealed that a proportion of men (27%) indicated that a supportive corporate culture is the top enabler to women’s acceleration in the workplace. This may mean that men are even more aware of how an inhospitable corporate culture affects the women working around them.

 

Having said the above, diversity is not just about gender. It is all-encompassing, including an individual’s profile, experiences, qualifications, expertise and other attributes that define him.

 

Tell us more about the DTF and its agenda in Singapore.

 

The DTF was formed to examine the state of gender diversity on boards and senior management in Singapore, and its impact on corporate performance and governance. The DTF comprises industry leaders from private and people sectors. The DTF was initiated by Mdm Halimah Yacob, Speaker of Parliament, during her term of office as Minister of State with the Ministry of Social and Family Development. The move was prompted by the growing concern that women in Singapore continue to be underrepresented on boards and top-level senior management positions despite being highly educated.

 

In Apr 2014, the DTF produced a study report, Gender diversity on boards: A business imperative, which revealed that women are under-represented on the boards of SGX-listed companies. A Diversity Action Committee was formed to implement recommendations from the study.

 

You are the Chairperson of the DTF. How did this come about?

 

It happened over lunch some two years ago, when I was asked to consider taking up this role. After understanding the background and purpose of the DTF, and given my interest in the women’s agenda, naturally, I agreed.

 

What compelled you to speak out for women and diversity?

 

As a working woman, diversity is a topic close to my heart, as I can see how it can unlock the potential of our female workforce, benefit businesses and ultimately contribute to economic growth.

 

I’m convinced that diversity, in challenging groupthink and bringing fresh perspectives and new solutions to organisations, is not an option, but is fundamental to being successful in today’s globalised and complex business environment. I’m fortunate to have been able to develop a fulfilling career, and it is important that we have enough women role models to speak up for the cause, so it is only natural that I do my part to drive positive change.

 

"I’m convinced that diversity, in challenging groupthink and bringing fresh perspectives and new solutions to organisations, is not an option, but is fundamental to being successful in today’s globalised and complex business environment."

 

What diversity initiatives have you been able to implement within EY? What road blocks did you experience?

 

As a global organisation, we believe that diversity and inclusiveness is the right thing to do. We’ve long valued everyone’s differences and have worked hard to build a culture that embraces diversity and inclusiveness. Further, as our clients become more global and expand into new markets, they expect us to be equally diverse.

 

Our diversity and inclusiveness strategy focuses on developing inclusiveness at the organisational level. This requires raising awareness of diversity and inclusiveness. We also look at key organisational processes (recruiting, staffing, account planning, succession planning, and promotions) and consider how to do these with an inclusive perspective. We make sure that we take different styles into account in our performance management processes and the way we talk about leadership and leadership behaviours.

 

We have seen that when women are given the opportunity, they can be influential, strengthen business relationships, and make real change happen. As part of our Diversity & Inclusiveness (D&I) strategy, the gender agenda is embedded in all of our processes, and helps us differentiate the organisation across the employee life cycle, including attraction, recruitment and onboarding, career management, development and transition.

 

We provide tailored learning and development, strategic mentoring programmes and coaching at each stage of one’s career to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. This includes building the skills of all of our people, at every level of our organisation, to team and lead inclusively. We strive to achieve this by embedding it in our learning curriculum, because these skills make us most effective.

 

At the same time, we promote flexible working on a non-gender basis, and our leaders are creative in making our flexibility culture come to life while balancing business peak seasons, targets and client deliverables. While the vast majority of our people work flexibly on a day-to-day basis, a number of our professionals benefit from establishing a formal, flexible work arrangement regarding hours, schedules and availability. Our flexibility culture for some might mean working from home, getting to a doctor’s appointment, starting work a little earlier so one could volunteer at a community event, or leaving at a specific time to attend a school play or a family function. We want our people to achieve better working by meeting both their personal and professional goals. Making that a reality means encouraging our people to think differently about their working lives, their attitudes and their actions, especially during our various busy seasons, when the need for flexibility may be the highest.

 

With these initiatives to encourage diversity and inclusiveness, we are proud that 57% of our people in EY Singapore are women and 23% of our Singapore Partners are women.

 

What is the next step after inclusion? How can an organisation sustain and continue development?

 

Diversity is a journey, not a destination. Further, culture change does not happen in a straight line everywhere, or at a predictable pace. Modest progress, setbacks and unexpected spurts forward are all part of the change dynamic—thus requiring regions, business units, teams and individuals to consistently self-assess, refine, hone and even readjust.

 

How should a company measure diversity?

 

From a board gender diversity standpoint, some countries have adopted quotas for gender diversity on corporate boards, and compliance with these rules thus becomes a way of measuring diversity for companies. However, quotas in themselves may not tackle the root cause of the lack of gender diversity, which is often driven by complex, interlinked factors. Further, diversity is not just about gender. Therefore, quotas may not work in all contexts. Diversity should not be viewed as a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise, and there’s little value in setting a quota for female representation when the spirit of engaging differing viewpoints does not happen.

 

Arguably, there is no one-size-fits-all model or structure for board or senior leadership diversity—it depends on the nature of the business. For example, a company in the oil and gas sector may benefit from having a director with a background in workplace safety and health governance, while a consumer product company may seek to increase the number of female directors in view of the rising commercial spending potential of women in its product line. It would be preferable to set voluntary and pragmatic targets for achieving gender diversity.

 

"Some countries have adopted quotas for gender diversity on corporate boards, and compliance with these rules thus becomes a way of measuring diversity for companies. However, quotas in themselves may not tackle the root cause of the lack of gender diversity, which is often driven by complex, interlinked factors. Further, diversity is not just about gender."

 

Share some lessons learnt during your journey so far.

 

One of the things that’s holding women back is family responsibilities. Many women sacrifice their career or cut down work-related activities, especially when there is extensive travelling or inflexible work arrangements. At the same time, some women are uncertain about their skillsets, particularly how they can fit the needs of boards and are shy to put themselves forward for board positions. Men tend to be more assertive in this aspect.

 

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