The clarion call to increase female participation in boardrooms appears to be winning significant momentum here. 

Over the past week, Singapore has hosted several events in which women from all over the world talked about a goal close to their hearts – how boards should reject the old boys’ network and get more women into the directors’ circle. 

“There are a lot more discussions on this issue nowadays and that’s really exciting,” said Singapore-based Lisa Robins, Deutsche Bank’s head of global transaction banking in Asia-Pacific, in an interview with The Straits Times.

There is plenty of scope for improvement: In 2011, only 7.3 per cent of boards in Singapore had a female director and progress has been uninspiring as it stood at 6.9 per cent in 2010. 

The agenda for a better gender mix at the top needs to be championed by chief executives but also those women who have broken the glass ceiling. 

This was the consensus at these various events. 

“I strongly feel that women who are already near or at the top have a particular responsibility to lend a hand to bring aspiring capable women up,” said Ms Linda Tsao Yang, former United States ambassador. 

Ms Yang, who was here recently to speak at the NUS Business School’s Leadership Dialogue Series, was the first female director of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest pension fund in the US.

She was also the first Asian woman executive director of the Asian Development Bank in Manila. Ms Yang now chairs the Asian Corporate Governance Association.

That helping hand to a board seat can also come from a man, of course. 

Former banker Yvonne Chia credits RHB Group founder Rashid Hussain with helping her become the first woman to head a Malaysian bank. 

“He saw what I was capable of and believed in me enough to make me head the bank,” said Ms Chia, during a panel session at Deutsche Bank’s Women in Asian Business conference here last week.

Ms Chia was the chief executive of RHB Bank between 1996 and 2002 and steered the bank through one of its toughest periods in the late 1990s.

In June, she retired as Hong Leong Bank’s chief executive after holding the post for 10 years. 

“There are many tools in the tool box to (elevate women to boards),” said Ms Susan Stautberg, president of board advisory firm PartnerCom and co-founder and co-chair of Woman CorporateDirectors (WCD), the only global community of women corporate directors.

“The best way is that instead of having your best friends in the board, place your best talents in the board,” she said, on the sidelines of the inaugural Asia Institute conference by accounting giant KPMG and the WCD. 

If that is difficult, having sponsors within organisations to help rising stars may be an effective route.

“The big difference between a sponsor and mentor is that a mentor talks to you about your career while a sponsor talks about you and talks you up. We need them in organisations,” added Ms Stautberg. 

Legislative quotas to draw more women to boards are clearly not preferred. 

Instead, the pro-choice method whereby companies set their own targets or goals seems to be favoured.

Ms Yang, for one, is against quotas as she fears it could lead to nepotism or tokenism. She suggests that companies impose “internally-generated pressure” and lay out their strategies with specific timetables, and diligently track the progress or lack of it. 

“This way, companies have ownership (of the agenda) and are not dictated to,” she added. 

But targets by themselves are not meaningful unless there are consequences in meeting – or not meeting – them, noted Ms Karen Bell, Deutsche Bank’s head of global logistics services, group technology and operations for Asia-Pacific.

If there are no incentives or penalties, chances are there will be less compulsion to meet the set targets. 

KPMG partner and WCD Singapore co-chair Ang Fung Fung said it would make a significant difference if the push for gender parity on boards was clearly articulated in Singapore’s Code of Corporate Governance. 

“The requirement (in the code) for board diversity is not so strong but hidden somewhere. We should come out stronger and more explicitly, and ask companies to explain their strategy for diversity,” added Ms Ang. 

But the window of opportunity may have opened and closed as the Monetary Authority of Singapore had only last year released a revised code.

Not necessarily so, said Ms Ang, who told The Straits Times: “We are collaborating a lot and talking to people in the Government. 

“Our ministers have also been talking about this issue a great deal. 

“It’s never too late. We’ll catch it in the next round.”

Senior government officials, including the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, Mr K. Shanmugam, and Ms Grace Fu, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, have called for more female top executive talent in corporate Singapore. 

That could serve as a useful jolt. 

“Oftentimes, the very fact that politicians and ministers are advocating this or that is enough of a threat for companies to sit up and take note,” said Ms Stautberg.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on September 23, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.