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Women’s journey to the board as finance professionals

21 December 2020: In November, ICAEW collaborated with The British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong to co-host a webinar with over a hundred attendees, titled “Women’s Journey to the Board as a Finance Professional”.

The speakers discussed the impact of women on boards, developing a pipeline of board-ready women, and advice for professionals seeking board roles, including guidance for younger potential board members.

The panel speakers, all ICAEW members, included Susanna Chiu, an iNED at Nanyang Commercial Bank, May Tan, former CEO of Standard Chartered Bank of Hong Kong, and Andrew Weir, Regional Senior Partner of KPMG in Hong Kong, and Vice Chairman of KPMG China. The panel moderator was Fiona Knott, CEO of The Women’s Foundation (an NGO improving the lives of women and girls in Hong Kong).

The webinar on board gender diversity could not have been more timely. Only 13.7% of board directors are women in Hong Kong currently. While the speakers discussed Hong Kong’s situation, they also discussed the financial services sector more globally in which women make up 21% of board directors. 

Selection to boards

After discussing their own journeys to the board room, the speakers touched on how boards select new members, as well as the impact women can have on boards. According to May Tan, “First of all, we look at specific skills…if a property company, someone with knowledge of property, or finance, legal, ESG experience, technology particularly for millennials.”

“The length of time that directors stay on the board matters as well.” May continued: “We look at who is retiring over a two-to-three-year period so there is enough time to find the right person. And then there is gender balance. When men leave, we look for a long list that includes women as well.” When it comes to impact on boards, May explained from her own experience: “with four women on the board (30%), we were heard and acted upon, rather than when there were only two, we were just heard.”

A pipeline to the boardroom

When it comes to developing a pipeline of female talent for the board room, the panel noted that there is a lack of female executive directors in companies which affects the supply of “board-ready women”. 

May said it was important “to force the issue…sometimes there can be a leaky pipeline because of family commitments, lack of confidence, etc. There is no one particular reason. We need to help as employers to make a conducive environment for women at exec director level, if they need to take longer with promotions, we need to accommodate that. There needs to be a framework and KPIs for developing female talent.”

Regarding general advice for women aiming for the board room, the speakers had the following to say.

Susannah Chiu: “Horizontal knowledge can come from your own research. Being a subject expert is very important (vertical). Look at what your own strength is and make it stronger. Education will help, including STEM.”

Andrew Weir: “Take advantage of any opportunity to broaden knowledge and the mind. Secondly, challenge. There is a glass ceiling at times and there is a lot of self-censoring. Speak up. The more training in governance you have, the more board-ready you will be. There are lots of board-ready women; it’s a question of linking people together. Being bold, confident and really pushing for it.”

May: “Market yourself and network like crazy. Make friends with head-hunters. Don’t be shy. Build up technical skills, and also soft skills. Do your due diligence. It is an onerous position so make sure you’re comfortable in it. Be sure you know what you’re signing up for.”

Recruitment of younger board members

Penultimately, the speakers discussed age and the importance of recruiting younger board members.

May: “I don’t think age matters and one of the challenges that a board faces is trying to recruit younger people because employers aren’t necessarily accommodating when it comes to being an iNED and having a day job. Millennials are needed; we need that voice because we are planning for the next ten years. We learn from younger people.”

Susannah: “Experience matters, but there is ageism. Now, in the digital age, young people should be aspiring to boards. Be subject experts and then build up your fundamentals. There are more industries to choose from.”

Andrew: “Don’t limit yourself. The biggest restriction on all of this is self-restriction.”

Serving the community

The final key takeaway was the speakers’ own motivation for being on boards: service to the community and building networks. The more gender-diverse boards become the better they will be able to serve the community. Network-building will not only help more women get on boards, it will also help to make a more linked up and connected society.

The webinar can be watched in full here.

For more resources on gender diversity, please see ICAEW’s Diversity and Inclusion hub here.

For personal development and networking opportunities to help women in finance reach their potential join the Women in Finance Community for free.

If you are a board member or NED, keep up to date with the news and developments in this field and join ICAEW’s Corporate Governance Community for free.