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Women on boards: quota proposal gains support as Hong Kong companies drag their feet on ensuring diversity

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 26/06/2021 Laura Westbrook laura.westbrook@scmp.com
a woman sitting at a table: May Tan was one of two woman on the board of Link Reit when she was appointed eight years ago. It now has four women on its 13-strong board. Photo: Xiaomei Chen © SCMP May Tan was one of two woman on the board of Link Reit when she was appointed eight years ago. It now has four women on its 13-strong board. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

When Ginny Wilmerding joined the board of Hong Kong-listed consumer technology company Techtronic Industries in April, it was an ambition realised after years of waiting.

The 52-year-old American, a partner of communications consultancy Finsbury Glover Hering, says she wanted to be appointed to a company board for a long time. "But I was not sure how I would break through," she adds.

She believes there are many more capable women in Hong Kong who can serve on boards, if only they are invited to do so.

"There is a huge pool of talent out there that can contribute and are just waiting for that first opportunity," says Wilmerding, a long-time resident of the city.

a woman smiling for the camera: Ginny Wilmerding joined the board of Techtronic Industries in April. Photo: Handout © Provided by South China Morning Post Ginny Wilmerding joined the board of Techtronic Industries in April. Photo: Handout

But Hong Kong's biggest companies have not been in any hurry to get women into their boardrooms.

Out of 2,550 listed companies, about a third have all-male boards. The rest have at least one woman board member, according to the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX).

But change may be in the air, with a proposal by the HKEX to require all listed companies to appoint at least one woman director. Existing companies will have three years to comply, while all new listing candidates must have at least one woman board member at the time of going public.

A spokeswoman for the HKEX told the Post a diversity of skills, background and personal strengths was an important driver of a board's effectiveness, creating different perspectives among directors, and breaking down a tendency towards "group think".

"Enshrining diversity principles in business strategy makes a company more agile and better prepared to deal with sudden change," she said.

During the exchange's consultation period which ended last week, women executives and industry groups supported the idea, calling the city's glacial progress on boardroom gender diversity an embarrassment.

But critics argued that companies must have the best mix of skills and experience on their boards, regardless of gender.

The presence of women has inched up by only about 4 per cent on Hang Seng Index companies over the past decade, including women who sit on multiple boards.

The top 50 companies on the index filled 24 per cent of their 42 open director seats - both executive and non-executive - with women last year, according to the latest Heidrick & Struggles board monitor report.

a woman walking down a street: The CEO of The Women's Foundation, Fiona Nott. Photo: Xiaomei Chen © Provided by South China Morning Post The CEO of The Women's Foundation, Fiona Nott. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

That was an improvement from 6 per cent in 2019, but Hong Kong still lags behind other global financial centres including in the United States, where women occupied 41 per cent of seats on boards last year, and Singapore, where women had a third of such seats.

The slow pace of change is disappointing and embarrassing, says Women's Foundation CEO Fiona Nott, adding: "It is simply not good enough."

The foundation, established in 2004 to tackle challenges and inequities faced by women and girls in the city, welcomes the HKEX proposals but says they do not go far enough.

It wants the exchange to set targets of 25 per cent female representation on boards by 2025 and 30 per cent within six years, with the aim of reaching 50 per cent.

How women make a difference

When May Tan, 65, was appointed eight years ago to the board of Link Reit, the largest real estate investment trust in Asia, she was one of two women. The company now has four women members on its 13-strong board.

The retired Standard Chartered Bank CEO is an independent non-executive director on several other boards, including Hang Seng Index listed CLP Holdings, which has four women among 14 directors.

In a submission to the HKEX, Tan said she did not think it would work to have only one woman on a board and suggested instead that newly listed companies had at least two women directors, to give women a louder voice.

Stressing the importance of women's input, she points to Link Reit, which has shopping centres in housing estates where 80 per cent of the customers are women.

The Malaysian, who has lived in Hong Kong for 37 years, says: "You've got 12 men around the table trying to work out what is best for the company, but don't you want to know how women think?"

During the Covid-19 pandemic, she adds, the board spent a lot of time discussing staff matters, including how employees with children were coping having to work from home.

While male board directors felt the staff must be coping because there were no complaints, the women directors recommended getting Human Resources to engage employees and create empathy through a difficult period.

"It reflects the female side of us," she says. "Men tend to look at profitability - which is very important, don't get me wrong, I ran a business. But if you don't engage people, you won't get the profits."

Finding women like 'looking for unicorns'

Experts say the dominance of family-owned companies and Chinese state-owned companies in Hong Kong presents a challenge for women breaking through the barriers, as these companies tend to identify directors through established, trusted networks.

Tim Payne, a senior partner at global critical issues consultancy Brunswick Group, says the natural instinct, especially in family-controlled structures, is to be relatively conservative and make appointments within a circle of trust.

"That is totally fine, except it does not shake up your governance, it does not quickly bring in a whole cohort of new people and, as a consequence, it is very hard to bring a lot of women onto the board," he says.

One way to bring about change is for such companies to ask what reforms they need for their boards to better represent their business.

That might well lead to an overhaul and bringing in more women, says Payne, 53, who is vice-chair of the 30% Club, which aims to get more women on the city's corporate boards.

Nasrine Ghozali, 43, chief risk officer at Oasis Management and co-founder of the Hong Kong Board Diversity Investor Initiative, which fosters dialogue and advocates for diversity on boards, says the common feedback from companies is that it is not easy to find women directors.

That makes her wonder if the threshold is set higher for women, even at companies which claim to accept the need for diversity.

Their attempts to find their first woman director, she adds, is almost like "looking for a unicorn who can single-handedly fulfil all the skills missing from the current board".

To showcase available talent, The Women's Foundation launched its "Women to Watch" database and since 2018 has seen 79 board appointments across all companies, including non-profits.

The accounting and legal professions are potential sources. About half the members of the accountants' professional body, the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants are women. In the legal field, 27 per cent of those at partner level are women.

A new area where women shine

In more recent years, environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) has emerged as an issue to watch, with shareholders and consumers increasingly asking who is looking out for these aspects of a company's operations.

The HKEX defines ESG as matters related to a listed company's sustainability and its impact on the environment and the wider society within which it operates.

"Given that this is a new area of expertise that boards are looking for, women who have naturally gravitated to ESG fields in recent years will be a good fit for boards," says Wilmerding.

Her experience in the technology sector, specialising in ESG, and more than two decades on the board of an American education non-profit, helped prepare her for her board appointment this year.

"My NGO board experience was rewarding and very relevant - particularly with regard to best practices in board governance and composition, board committees, and risk management," she says.

At Techtronic Industries, she is the first woman director on a 12-member board and her appointment fits the company's increasing focus on ESG.

"Maybe it's kind of a turning point, because the ESG focus is helpful to the momentum of getting more women on boards," she says.

If she is right, the boards of Hong Kong NGOs might provide a talent pool for companies seeking women directors.

When Olivia Wong Ka-ying, 54, joined the Habitat for Humanity Hong Kong and China board in 2015, she was the only woman alongside five men.

Although she had been a volunteer for 10 years, she felt uncomfortable speaking up initially.

a woman standing in front of a building: Olivia Wong, group head of diversity and inclusion at John Swire & Sons (HK). Photo: K. Y. Cheng © Provided by South China Morning Post Olivia Wong, group head of diversity and inclusion at John Swire & Sons (HK). Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Wong, who is group head of diversity and inclusion at John Swire & Sons (HK) Limited, recalls: "I was the new person, the only woman. Everyone had been there for much longer and they were much older gentlemen. What if I asked a question and it sounded silly?"

Things changed with the board's expansion to 11 members in 2019, with five women and six men.

"Everybody has an equal voice. People are much more confident in expressing their opinion," says Wong, now chair of the Hong Kong and China board and a director on the group's international board.

The experience has given her confidence to consider serving other boards in future, corporate or non-profits, she adds.

'What counts is merit, not quotas'

Not everyone is thrilled with the HKEX proposals to make companies appoint women directors. Those opposing the idea include the 300-member Chamber of Hong Kong Listed Companies.

Its chief executive, Mike Wong, 57, says the chamber and HKEX do not see eye-to- eye on including at least one woman board member and it is against setting quotas.

"Our worry is that every appointment should be by merit, not to fulfil a rule requirement," he says, adding that some members from manufacturing companies told him it is difficult to find women directors.

Payne says the market's inability to deliver on board diversity calls for "stronger medicine".

"To sustain Hong Kong as a leading financial centre, it needs to be a leader on governance," he says.

Habitat for Humanity Hong Kong CEO Jo Hayes, 47, who spearheaded creating a bigger, more diverse board when she joined the organisation in 2018, says it is a myth that there are not enough suitable women in Hong Kong.

"It's about giving access to opportunities for new board directors," she says. "There are so many amazing female leaders and diverse leaders out there that we should be bringing onto boards."

Aware that some are eager to move faster on board diversity than others, the HKEX recognises "the practical situations in Hong Kong listed companies".

Its spokeswoman says women candidates must have the skills, experience and calibre that suit the business, and companies "should not appoint a director for their gender or due to the quota".

"Progress towards board diversity will be most successful and sustainable when it rests on a broad-based stakeholder consensus which encourages shareholders to improve the diversity of the directors they appoint, rather than through the top-down imposition of quotas," she said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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