Undaunted, Ms Wong applied for the job anyway. At her interview, which was with an international financial institution, Ms Wong argued why a woman could fill the role. She got the job.
That was in 1981. Nearly two decades later, Ms Wong joined DBS bank; and today she sits on DBS’ Group Executive Committee and heads the Institutional Banking Group.
Today, the state of gender equality at the workplace has undoubtedly improved since the 1980s; but more can be done.
According to a survey by global consultancy Grant Thornton, just one in four senior roles globally was held by a woman last year. In Singapore, we fared better than the global average, with women accounting for 30% of senior roles, up from 26% in 2016. However, at the board level, Singapore is second to last among major international centres when it comes to gender diversity.
According to DBS chief executive officer Piyush Gupta, embracing gender equality at the workplace is important for Singapore because of three factors.
“First, Asia is talent short, and so looking far and wide is crucial to finding the best. Embracing gender diversity allows us to tap into a wider talent pool where others may not be looking,” he told the Business Times.
“Second, it helps ensure that as an organisation, we have a multiplicity of views and perspectives that is helpful in preventing groupthink.
This year, DBS was one of only two companies in Singapore which made it into the inaugural Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index, which recognised 104 firms worldwide for their gender equality efforts.
Women currently make up 40% of DBS’ senior management, which includes senior vice presidents to managing directors. In Singapore, women form 60% of DBS’ overall workforce and 30% of the Group Management Committee, which sets the strategy and direction of the bank.
Among the steps DBS has taken to creating a female-friendly corporate environment include establishing a board diversity policy and providing a range of working arrangements including flexible time arrangement, part-time arrangement, work-from-home arrangement and a sabbatical leave arrangement.
CEO Piyush Gupta also championed having clear hiring and promotion practices with objective criteria and frequent salary reviews for parity between genders during his interview with the Business Times.
“Women do face challenges juggling work and family commitments especially when their children are young. Sometimes, this may be held against them, consciously or unconsciously. Unless companies actively ensure that parity exists, there could be instances of gender pay gaps for similar roles, or gender bias in hiring and promotions,” he said.
“We believe that when you achieve a critical mass of women across all levels, this will make a difference in an organisation’s ability to succeed.”
At DBS, promoting gender equality however is not just confined to within the company. DBS played an active role in launching the Women’s Livelihood Bond — the world’s first social sustainability bond to be listed on a stock exchange. More importantly, the S$10.6 million bond has an impact on the livelihoods of over 385,000 women in South-east Asia through micro loans. In addition, DBS Foundation, the first foundation in Singapore dedicated to championing social entrepreneurship, supports and funds numerous social enterprises that empower disadvantaged women and girls.
To Ms Jeanette Wong, the next step to promoting gender equality is for the current women leaders to empower the next generation.
Ms Tan Su Shan, another of the seven women on DBS’ Group Management Committee and the Group Head of DBS’ Consumer Banking & Wealth Management — one of DBS’ largest business units — agreed.
“DBS doesn’t discriminate on gender or race and actively helps us develop with coaching and mentorship programmes — even encouraging reverse mentors,” she said.
All the women members of the Group Management Committee noted the different benefits to working in an organisation that was supportive of women.
For Ms Chng Sok Hui, DBS’ Chief Financial Officer since 2008, it was DBS supporting her career even as she was raising four children. She said: “DBS took many chances on me in my 35-year career. I moved to new roles every few years, built functions from scratch, and joined the Management Committee at 41.”
Ms Eng-Kwok Seat Moey, Head of DBS’ Capital Markets Group, who was instrumental in building and shaping Singapore’s REITs market, saw the benefits of having an open mindset, “Knowing that everyone is on a level playing field, that it’s an inclusive environment, helps us all to be open and generous in our views.”
More importantly, the women on the Group Management Committee say that the lack of gender discrimination has allowed them to do well at their jobs — consequently leading to better results for the bank.
Ms Karen Ngui, Head of DBS’ Group Strategic Marketing and Communications, who has led branding and communications across DBS since 2005, appreciated the freedom to simply focus on excelling in good company: “It’s enabled me to focus on doing my best and given me the privilege of working with like-minded individuals from varied backgrounds, who thrive on doing well and doing good.”
Ms Lee Yan Hong, Head of DBS’ Group Human Resources, is a key advocate for many of DBS’ flexi-work and family-friendly policies. She’s proud to point out that a large part of DBS’ success resides in its openness to people of varied backgrounds : “We thrive because of the diversity of experiences and knowledge brought to the table by our colleagues, which helps to drive change and deliver impact.”
Ms Pearlyn Phau, Deputy Group Head of DBS’ Consumer Banking & Wealth Management, has been with DBS some 15 years and agrees with this.
“The fact that we all got here based on performance and meritocracy, without needing a quota, makes it clear that women can and will rise to the top when empowered,” she said.