Gender composition on corporate boards and update on Council of Board Diversity’s latest findings and plans to achieve it’s 20–20 vision

Anthea Indira Ong
6 min readApr 6, 2020


Parliamentary Question, 6 April 2020

Ms Yip Pin Xiu asked the Minister for Social and Family Development (a) why gender quotas for corporate boards are not mandatory; and (b) why the voluntary quota is set at 20% when most other countries have a higher mandatory quota.

Ms Anthea Ong asked the Minister for Social and Family Development (a) whether the Council of Board Diversity’s latest findings include data on how many existing board members in public-listed companies, statutory boards and IPCs hold more than two board seats across these organisations and, if not, why not; (b) what are the Ministry’s plans to achieve the 20–20 vision for at least 20% female representation on boards of public-listed companies by end-2020; © whether there should be a higher target than 20% as a First World country; and (d) what are the Ministry’s strategic plan and priorities after 2020 for achieving gender equality at home and at work.

Mr Desmond Lee: The importance and benefits of having more women on boards and in senior management are well recognised. Indeed, having more women on boards adds to the boards’ diversity in skillsets, experiences and perspectives, thus leading to better decisions. However, while there has been some progress on this front, more needs to be done to quicken the pace.

The Council for Board Diversity, or CBD in short, was formed by MSF in 2019 to increase the representation of women on the boards of private, people and public sectors organisations. This is an expanded scope from its predecessor, the Diversity Action Committee, or DAC, which focused on the private sector.

CBD has been working towards its 2020 target of achieving 20% women on boards in the top 100 primary-listed companies. The Council has been actively engaging the Chairpersons and Board Members of these companies. To help achieve the 2020 target, MSF is also working with the Council in its engagement efforts and in building a pipeline of board-ready women candidates. The Council’s efforts include collecting data on board renewal so that it can encourage, ahead of time, the organisation concerned to nominate women candidates to be appointed. It encourages organisations, where possible, to consider creating additional positions on their boards so that we can achieve the 20% target sooner rather than wait for the renewal of existing board members.

The CBD has been doing good work since it was established and it is on the way towards achieving its 20% target. We have seen an increase in women participation on the boards of the top 100 listed companies, top 100 institutions of public character (IPCs) and Government Statutory Boards. But both MSF and CBD see the need to look beyond this short-term target. As such, we should aim higher. Ultimately, boards should have an approximately equal number of men and women directors. To achieve this, CBD will gradually set higher targets as we progress. For example, CBD has set an interim target for all SGX-companies to have 25% women on boards by end-2025, and 30% women on boards by end-2030.

In response to Ms Yip’s point on quotas, we note that some may see mandatory quotas as a straightforward means to having more women on boards. Voluntary quotas require a lot more time and effort, as it requires changing mindsets. However, mandatory quotas would not be effective in creating a meaningful increase in the representation of women on boards, as it does not address root causes of the issue. The causes for the low percentage of women on boards are complex and intertwined. It has to do with culture and traditions. Many countries, like the United States and Denmark, face similar challenges.

Thus, a multi-stakeholder approach that empowers stakeholders to collaborate and collectively address underlying root causes would be more effective. Moreover, we understand that candidates, both men and women, prefer to be appointed on their own merits, rather than being seen as mandatory ‘token’ representatives on boards, which would undermine their standing credibility. As the pipeline of board-ready women candidates grows and boards have more candidates to select from, there will be an organic increase in the representation of women on boards based on their own merits.

Ms Anthea Ong asked whether the Council has information on how many board members are sitting on more than two boards in public listed companies, statutory boards and IPCs. I assume she is thinking of whether we can restrict the number of boards a person can sit on to allow for more people, especially women, to be appointed.

Such information is available. But I think it is better not to be too restrictive as it may not be helpful to the organic growth that we want to see in the number of women on board by having them appointed on their own merits. If a person has the capacity and the capability, he or she should not be prevented to serve on more than one board.

Besides the efforts to get more women on boards, the Government also supports the multiple roles that women play in our society. Women are active in leadership positions at work and in their community. Currently, Singapore is the only ASEAN country with a female Head of State. We have three female full Ministers, several other Political Office Holders and senior Civil Servants, including Permanent Secretaries. We have 24 women Parliamentarians in this Thirteenth Parliament, which is about 24% and about the same as the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s world average of 24.5%. Women also make up half of our public service and Judicial Officers posts in the State and Supreme Courts.

Our approach is to empower women with choices to pursue their aspirations, be it career, family or both. As such, we will continue eliminating barriers for women at the workplace, in the community and at home. To do so, we need a whole-of-society movement to change mind-sets, attitudes and expectations.

Our colleagues at the Ministry of Manpower recently announced plans to enhance the implementation of Flexible Work Arrangements, or FWAs, after hearing from the citizens’ panel on work-life harmony. Apart from increasing awareness and facilitating easier adoption of FWAs, MOM will also work on shifting societal norms to make FWA more acceptable.

We will continue to encourage the people, private and public sector organisations to work together towards having more women on boards and in leadership positions.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at



Anthea Indira Ong

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.