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Speech at International Labour Organisation (ILO) Asia-Pacific Regional Conference, “Fostering Female Talent in the Workforce”

Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Health, Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium, Ballroom

Ms Deborah France-Massin
Bureau of Employer’s Activities, International Labour Organisation

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


  1. Good morning. I am happy to join you today at the Asia-Pacific Regional Conference on Fostering Female Talent in the Workforce. This conference follows the one held in London three months ago. It provides a valuable platform to discuss the challenges in advancing women in the workforce, and explore solutions to level the playing field for both women and men.
  2. The strong representation here today from businesses, experts and practitioners from countries around the region signals the growing awareness and understanding of the importance of nurturing female talent in the workforce.
  3. This year, Singapore celebrates our 50th year of independence. We have come a long way as a nation, and the lives of women in Singapore have also changed dramatically for the better. Early on, we recognised that women make up at least half the population, and by extension, contribute half of the potential talent pool in Singapore.
  4. This is why we made education accessible for all children, regardless of gender, from the very start. The effect of this policy on the empowerment of women is clear. When Singapore first gained independence in 1965, only 43% of women were literate. This figure doubled to about 95% in 2014. Last year, women make up more than half of the student population in our local universities. Women are also contributing more in our labour force, with female labour force participation jumping from about a quarter in 1965 to 59% in 2014.
  5. Not only are today’s women better educated and contributing more to our economy, they have also established themselves in many sectors and their share of professional and managerial roles have also increased significantly. Today, they make up over a quarter of the research scientists and engineers in Singapore (28%)1; over a quarter of our business entrepreneurs (29%)2; and more than half of the writers and editors in our creative and media industry (68%)3.
  6. They also take up almost a quarter of seats (24.5%)4 in Parliament, slightly higher than the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s world average of 22.2%5. Even in the traditionally male-dominated military, the first female Brigadier-General – Gan Siow Huang – assumed her role two days ago on 1 July, cracking the perceived “brass ceiling”. This represents the huge advancement in standing and recognition of women in all facets and levels of society here.

    Current state of diversity in top leadership positions
  7. While we have certainly done well in advancing female participation in the workforce, there are some areas where progress has been slower. In particular, female representation at the top levels of Singapore companies has remained low.
  8. According to a report released last week by Deloitte Global, women hold just 9% of board seats here6 – an improvement over the 8.3% in 20137 and 7.9% in 20128 – but still trailing behind the global average of 12%. We fare better if you look at the proportion of women who chair boards which is at 7%9. This is higher than the global average of 4% and is in fact higher than those of countries like Denmark and Ireland which have a much higher proportion of board seats held by women. Nonetheless, the fact remains that women representation in Boards remains paltry when compared to that of men and given that they “hold up half the sky”.
  9. This “leaking pipeline” situation where women in senior positions drop out, or have their numbers decline as we move upwards in the organization is not unique to Singapore. As Deborah will share later, data from a survey conducted by the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Bureau for Employer’s Activities showed 4 per cent of companies in the Asia-Pacific region had no women at the supervisory or junior manager level. This figure almost triples to about 11 per cent of companies reporting that there are no women appointed at the senior management level10.

    The future is in harnessing the power and potential of women in the workplace
  10. Prioritising the development of female leaders is not about striving to appear fair and equal. It is not merely a female issue, nor should it be seen as affirmative action for women. Rather, it is about expanding and optimising the limited talent pool in any organisation. In Singapore, this is especially pertinent with the prospect of a slowing labour force growth due to low birth rates and a rapidly ageing population. Greater labour force participation by women and harnessing the power and potential of women at the workplace are key to sustaining economic growth.
  11. Women are also set to become the main driver of the global consumer markets. As a greater number of women are entering the labour force globally, they are also earning more. Women’s income is expected to jump from US$9.8 trillion in 2007 to US$15.6 trillion in 2017. By 2028, women will control close to three-quarters of discretionary spending worldwide11. Companies, especially those involved in consumer-related industries, will benefit greatly from taking in the views of women in the decision-making process for company policies and strategies.
  12. Multiple studies and research have also shown the benefits of a more diverse board. According to a study by NUS and BoardAgender, SGX-listed companies whose boards had greater gender, age and ethnic diversity, outperformed their more homogenous peers by nearly five times. Those companies which had more gender-diverse boards had an average return-on-assets of 3.3%, compared to just 0.3% for those without12.
  13. Other international studies have also established the positive relationship between a more gender diverse board and better business performance. Credit Suisse found that the return-on-equity for companies with at least one female board member was 14.1%, higher than the 11.2% for companies with no female board members13.
  14. Clearly, more needs to be done to promote greater diversity at all levels of our organisations, and more acutely at the leadership levels. Having more women leaders can help focus management’s attention on HR and talent policies that can attract and groom female talent, adding to the breadth of talent in the workforce.

    Improving Gender Diversity at the top
  15. Achieving greater diversity at the top is not impossible. It requires a concerted effort by the 3 Ps partners namely the Public, Private and People sectors – to better support women in their climb up the corporate ladder.
  16. First, the public sector needs to promote an eco-system that makes it easier for men and women alike, but especially women, to juggle their career and family commitments. We recognise and support women who aspire to have meaningful careers and a fulfilling family life, but it is challenging to achieve both at the same time. Currently, women still take up a greater proportion of care-giving responsibilities in their families. But we are heartened that the mindset is gradually changing.
  17. Men increasingly see themselves playing a larger role at home, just as women are taking up more responsibilities in the workplace. To encourage greater shared parental responsibilities, the Government introduced paternity leave in the 2013 Marriage and Parenthood package. Fathers also have the option to share one week of maternity leave with the mothers to bond and take care of their newborns. The government has also been expanding the number of infant and childcare places and improving their quality and affordability to make it easier for women to remain in the workforce or return to work when they desire to do so, after they start a family.
  18. Second, the private sector needs to adapt workplaces to support the needs of their employees. In 2013, the Government introduced the WorkPro Work-Life Grant to provide funding for companies to implement and sustain flexible work arrangements. We streamlined the grant requirements in Jul 2014 to increase the accessibility of the grant to employers. The greater flexibility at the workplace allows employees to manage their needs and increase their engagement and productivity. This in turn helps employers to remain competitive and attract and retain their most valued employees, who might otherwise leave the workforce entirely.
  19. The Tripartite Committee on Work-Life Strategy also issued the Tripartite Advisory on Flexible Work Arrangements last year to provide guidance to employers, managers and employees to implement, manage and use flexible work arrangements effectively at the workplace. In addition, 43 organisations and five individuals were conferred the Work-Life Excellence Award last year. There was also a larger proportion of first-time winners among the award recipients compared to previous years, which showed that employers are increasing becoming aware of and embracing the importance of work-life strategies.
  20. In addition the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices has started putting in place regular training on the implementation of flexible working arrangements and also organises networking sessions for employers to learn from one another on their flexible work arrangements journey. There’s also a work-life ad campaign in the works, to educate and generate more awareness of what flexible work arrangements are. And by next year, we would also be ready with a work-life resource portal for employers and employees, giving them easy access to work-life content, engagement and implementation of work-life strategies. We are happy to note that through these efforts, the proportion of private establishments offering formal flexible work arrangements has increased from 38% in 2011 to 47% in 2014. But more can be done to make flexible work arrangements pervasive and we will continue to work closely with our tripartite partners to do so.
  21. While the government can provide support for the “hardware”, companies themselves must develop the “software”. Companies must adopt HR policies that allow women to be considered fairly for jobs at all levels and for career progression opportunities. They should work towards achieving gender diversity in company leadership. Women leaders in Singapore have identified support from their employer as one of the key factors that helped them rise to the top14. Most of the organisations that these women were working in took active steps to identify and cultivate talent. To tap on the rich pool of skills and expertise offered by women, companies need to reduce reliance on literally the ‘old-boys’ networks – you never hear about the ‘old girls’ network -- when recruiting senior management and board members. Companies should make the conscious effort to look beyond their social circles and review their leadership and talent development pipeline to be gender-neutral, and to prioritise diversity.
  22. Finally, individuals themselves, and the society play important roles as well. As a society, there needs to be mindset change with regards to the expectations of women and their roles in the family. I mentioned earlier in my speech that the first female Brigadier-General in Singapore assumed her role two days ago, but I didn’t mention that she is also a proud mother of three young daughters. She has said that help from her in-laws and her husband at home has been critical for her to get to where she is today. So the Government and private sector may conscientiously implement family-friendly policies or actively scout women talent. However, without strong family support, the challenges that women face in balancing work and personal commitments will be hard to overcome. As far as I’m concerned, it is really the strong family support from my husband, parents, in-laws and children that has allowed me to do what I am doing today.

  23. We certainly can do more to promote gender diversity in workplaces, across a whole spectrum of jobs and leadership positions. And we must do more in order for companies to do well, and at the same time, help our children, family and friends maximise their potential and realise their dreams regardless of their gender, culture and backgrounds. I look forward to hearing from the distinguished guests as they share their views on this topic in their speeches and the panel discussions afterwards.
  24. Thank you, and I hope that you have a most fruitful conference.


  1. A*STAR (2012), National Survey of R&D. Retrieved from here.
  2. MOM (2014), Labour Force in Singapore 2014.  Figures based on resident working proprietors which refer to those who operate and manage their own businesses.
  3. MOM (2014), Comprehensive Labour Force Survey 2014. Figures are for residents.
  4. Elected members of Parliament (MPs), Non-constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs).
  5. Both houses combined as at 1 June 2015. Retrieved from here.
  6. Deloitte Global (2015), Women in the boardroom – A global perspective. Retrieved from here.
  7. BoardAgender (2015) Singapore Board Diversity Report 2014. Retrieved from here.
  8. BoardAgender (2014) Singapore Board Diversity Report 2013. Retrieved from here.
  9. Deloitte Global (2015), Women in the boardroom – A global perspective. Retrieved from here.
  10. ILO, Bureau for Employers’ Activities (2015), Women in business and management: Gaining momentum in Asia and the Pacific.
  11. EY (2015), High achievers: Recognizing the power of women to spur business and economic growth. Retrieved from here.
  12. Dieleman et al (2014), Singapore Board Diversity Report: The Diversity Dividend. Retrieved from here.
  13. Credit Suisse (2014), The CS Gender 3000: Women in Senior Management. Retrieved from here.
  14. Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (2013), Journey to the Top - Conversations with Successful Singaporean Women. Retrieved from here.