Diversity versus meritocracy


    The Business Times, 20 March 2023


    FOR most organisations that I know, even while hiring for diversity, recruiting is still a talent call.

    The difference is that seeking a more diverse slate of candidates calls for a more robust hiring process, especially in sourcing for CVs with varied backgrounds and hiring candidates with different perspectives.

    Most of us would agree that diversity helps to enhance the collective wisdom, which will ultimately lead to a better decision-making process and performance.

    Therefore, if we keep an open mind in our talent recruitment, cast our net deep and wide enough and commit to a rigorous interview and selection process, we will naturally increase the diversity of our talent pool.

    In so doing, we should be able to find a slate of diverse and well-qualified candidates. And those who can provide fresh viewpoints and insights will make the cut.

    This clearly shows up the myth of meritocracy and diversity being values that are “at odds” with one another and cannot both be achieved simultaneously.

    In fact, it demonstrates that having a robust and merit-based recruitment process will automatically improve diversity.

    Limited progress stems from the lack of genuine belief in the benefits of gender diversity

    That said, according to the March 6, 2023 article in The Business Times by Michelle Quah headlined “Calls for gender diversity in Singapore’s corporate leadership to evolve past box ticking”, there is still a relative lack of women in key leadership positions on boards in Singapore, such as board chairs, lead independent directors and audit committee chairs.

    The article noted that “some organisations, including listed companies, are doing it more to avoid being singled out or because they want to be seen to be inclusive – not because they genuinely believe in the benefits of gender diversity”.

    This view is backed by the Singapore Board of Directors Survey 2022, conducted in partnership with Russell Reynolds.

    It was reported that while 78 per cent of the respondent firms have board diversity policy, 34 per cent of these companies reported having all-male boards, though the figure has declined from 39 per cent in 2019.

    In addition, while 66 per cent of boards have at least one woman independent director, only 32 per cent have two or more female board members.

    On a slightly more positive note, 82 per cent of the respondent firms anticipate that they will have at least one female director on their board in the near future.

    However, what about the rest? It’s abundantly clear that many still do not believe in the benefits of having a diverse board.

    Unfounded widespread belief that Singapore lacks qualified board-ready women

    There remains a widespread belief that Singapore lacks qualified board-ready women.

    This seems to be another roadblock in appointing more women on boards.

    However, I would like to point out that based on the same survey mentioned above, an overwhelming majority (96 per cent) of the respondents still rely on personal contacts to identify potential non-executive directors, although an increasing number of respondents (27 per cent) are also using executive search firms to complement their search process.

    Hopefully, we will see more organisations start to seek out qualified and diverse candidates through a variety of channels, instead of relying solely on personal networks.

    I have personally met many well-qualified board-ready women.

    In fact, 35 per cent of the participants in my recent Insead International Directors Programme cohort are women.

    Most of them are first-time board members who may not be on the current directors’ circles of contacts, but are keen to contribute.

    This goes to show that there is no lack of potential women board-ready candidates, if only we keep an open mind and look beyond our personal networks.

    Therefore, I believe if we are serious about improving gender diversity on boards, it’s crucial to mandate a more robust board selection process in sourcing for a broader and diverse slate of candidates, beyond our personal networks.

    In addition, setting clear goals on board diversity is equally important.

    Why board composition matters  

    Board composition is of strategic importance that will impact the company’s long-term performance.

    Numerous studies have shown that boardroom diversity plays a key role in improving board effectiveness, including better decision-making and ultimately better business outcomes.

    This is because all of us are subject to our own inherent cognitive biases and diversity is one of the most effective ways to mitigate our own biases.

    In fact, in most cases, the quality of a group decision with diverse perspectives is always better than those from excessively uniform viewpoints.

    Hence, having the “right” board composition with complementary skills and perspectives is key to avoid being blindsided.

    Therefore, in the board selection process, it’s not just about choosing the best qualified individual on paper, it’s also about bringing in the right individual to strengthen the overall board composition.

    Diversity and inclusivity are necessary elements of good decision-making for boards to improve performance.

    And there’s certainly no lack of talented board-ready women out there. I believe it’s time for us to move away from using meritocracy as a smoke screen for limited progress in diversity.

    Diversity and meritocracy can certainly be achieved simultaneously.

    The writer is an independent director of multiple boards.