Singapore has surpassed Hong Kong in the representation of women on listed boards. What will it take for Hong Kong to seriously address this issue?
Community Business has been tracking the progress of women on boards for over ten years. Over the last decade on an annual basis, we have repeatedly reported on the glacial pace of change. In 2019, we are dismayed to report once again, not only has there continued to be slow progress in Hong Kong – but in fact an unexpected stagnation of the headline numbers. This, despite the growing awareness of the business case for gender diversity, the deep-rooted issues brought to light by the #MeToo movement and global efforts to drive positive change.
Having a gender diverse board is not about optics, but about solidifying your business. A board made up of different, even conflicting, perspectives and life experiences encourage a culture of questioning and robust discussion. This will not only help to mitigate risks and strengthen governance but ensure a higher probability of business success, which is backed by a growing body of research. In these volatile and disruptive times, companies should demand a strong, diverse board that futureproofs their existence.
Hong Kong’s lack of progress is overshadowed by a downward trend on almost all indicators, leading us to question: what will it take for Hong Kong to snap out of its complacency and seriously address this issue? The rapid progress of some of our Asian neighbours such as Singapore and India should be a wake-up call for Hong Kong’s business community.
In the last twelve months, the representation of women on the boards of the 50 Hang Seng Index (HSI) listed companies in Hong Kong has stagnated. As of 2 January 2019, just 13.9% of board positions were held by women, barely nudging up from 13.8% a year ago. Despite the 30% Club Hong Kong’s aspirational target for eradicating all-male boards by the end of 2018, there remains ten companies with no women on their boards, the same level as a year ago. Furthermore, five of these companies – CNOOC, Sunny Optical Technology, Tencent Holdings, Towngas and WH Group – have never had female representation on their boards.
Of all 50 HSI companies, only one (Hang Seng Bank) has a female CEO, Louisa Cheang Wai-wan. This has disappointingly remained largely constant over the last decade, only rising to two female CEO’s in 2015 and 2016 with Mengniu Dairy was added to the HSI in 2014.
The slow pace of board renewal in Hong Kong is a contributing factor to the poor progress over the years. Board director tenures in Hong Kong are long, and quite often directors are kept beyond the point where they are adding value or remaining independent. When vacancies do open up, recruitment is usually through the existing board’s informal network, further perpetuating the ‘Old Boys Club’ and limiting the opportunity to diversify and strengthen the board. A formal recruitment process which evaluates diverse candidates, the introduction of term limits, and a regular review of board structure and composition to secure the right balance of skills, knowledge, experience, and independence - are not only good governance measures, but will go a long way in ensuring the board remains relevant and well positioned to steer the company now and in the future.
In 2018, we reported that a promising number of companies (15) had at least 20% female representation on their boards. Unfortunately, in 2019 this number has dropped by one company to 14. Over the last twelve months, only six new female directors have been appointed - the lowest since 2009, both in actual number and percentage (6.8%) terms. During this same period, 82 men were appointed to HSI boards. This downward trend in female appointments is in sharp contrast to the previous year, when 17 female appointments were made, representing 18.7%, the highest rate ever. In addition, of the six female directors appointed in 2018, only four were new appointments (the remaining two were role changes: Leonie Ki from Executive Director to Non-Executive Director at New World Development; and Yang Huiyan from Country Garden Holdings, who was promoted from Vice-Chair to Co-Chair). Only one woman (Lai Hong Yee at Want Want China Holdings) was a brand-new appointment as she has not previously been appointed to any other listed boards in Hong Kong. This finding indicates that companies are reluctant to appoint women who have not had previous board experience, which further limits the expansion of the talent pipeline of senior women who could be considered for board roles.
Signs of Positivity
With the gloomy headline numbers, are there any glimmers of hope? The percentage of companies with female executive directors is higher this year than it has ever been (38.0%). Executive directorships are an indicator of the female pipeline in a company and whether the company is creating a supportive environment for women to reach the top. Ten years ago, the percentage of companies with female executive directors was 31.0%, dipping as low as only 24.0% in 2013-2014 and climbing at a steady rate since then to reach 38.0%. In total, there are 25 female executive directors out of a total of 215 on the Hang Seng Index) today. We also see progress in the number of female chairpersons of HSI listed companies. From a meagre one female chairperson from 2011 to 2018, this statistic has risen to three this year.
Women on Boards League Table 2019 (As of 2 January 2019)
The Women on Boards League Table provides a ranking of companies’ performance – as assessed by the percentage of women on their boards.
The top ten companies in the 2019 League Table have improved their overall position over the last twelve months at 28.9%, with average of 3.9 women on their boards (vs 28.1% with an average of 3.4 women a year ago) and the top five companies reporting over 30% (only the top four charted over 30% last year).
Individual Company Performance
The Regional Landscape
There have been some small victories for countries around the globe. Most notably, Singapore and India have overtaken Hong Kong in the rankings for the first time, reporting 15.2% (Singapore) and 14.0% (India) women on their boards. Regionally, Malaysia reports the highest numbers, with 23.2% recorded. Both India and Malaysia have government quotas in place which may go some way to explaining their acceleration in recent years. Singapore, via the government-backed Council for Board Diversity*, has enacted a multi-pronged campaign involving naming-and-shaming, engaging with board decision makers, maintaining a list of female candidates, and showcasing through data the impact on corporate performance. Inspired by this galvanised action, vocal support from male champions at the board level has increased dramatically. All of these factors have led to rapid progress in Singapore, with female board appointments reaching a record high of 24.0% during 2018.
*Previously named ‘Diversity Action Committee’ and starting in January 2019, its scope has expanded to also include statutory boards and non-profit organisations.
The lack of women on corporate boards is now firmly established in the global conversation. At the end of 2018, California passed a law that legally obligates companies based in the state to appoint at least one female board director by the end of 2019. In the UK, HSBC reacted to recent criticism of its gender pay gap (61% in 2018) by reaffirming its commitment to increase the percentage of women in senior management roles to 30% by 2020, from the current 23%. While there is much work to be done globally to address the lack of senior female representation in the corporate domain, what we do see is a positive response to the issue from multinational companies, including a growing demand to appoint Asian women to their boards. Hong Kong, on the whole, lacks this resolve. In the eleven years that Community Business has been tracking the representation of women on Hong Kong boards, we have seen only marginal progress confined to a select group of progressive companies. Singapore’s recent triumph over Hong Kong in this area (15.2% vs Hong Kong’s 13.9%) as well as its increasing momentum should serve as a wake-up call for our city. Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial centre is at stake.
A concerted and collective effort is required by companies, governments, regulators, investors, and other stakeholders to ensure that women are given equal opportunity to participate and serve in leadership roles in the boardroom and executive suite. This begins with a commitment to change and a bold admission from Hong Kong companies that gender diversity is good for business, and ultimately good for Hong Kong.
Our full recommendations for increasing women’s representation on Hong Kong boards can be found in our Call to Action
About the Author: Fern Ngai, CEO, Community Business