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Diversity & Inclusivity: Women Of Substance

Three female ISCA members share their perspectives on success, the growing importance of diversity and inclusivity on the accountancy profession – and what motivates them to reach for greater heights in their field.


TAKEAWAYS

  • Young women should dream big, set realistic goals and work towards them.
  • Women need to be bolder, and step up to embrace opportunities that align with their career objectives.
  • Women leaders bring different, beneficial perspectives to their organisations.

More than a century has passed since Mary Harris Smith, at the age of 75, became the world’s first female Chartered Accountant in May 1920. Today, women are a formidable force in all industries, at all levels of their respective organisations. The White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development states that “the employment rate of women between the ages of 25 and 64 years increased from 53% in 1994 to 75% in 2021”.

Indeed, much has been done to bring gender diversity and inclusivity within the workforce. Statistics from the Council for Board Diversity (the Board) shows that women participation on the boards of the top 100 listed companies in Singapore increased from 15.2% in 2018 to 19.7% on 1 January 2022, bringing the numbers closer to the Board’s targets of 25% by end-2025, and 30% by end-2030. In other aspects, 59% of employed women in Singapore held PMET (professionals, managers, executives, and technicians) roles in 2020 – an increase from the 50% in 2010.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Manpower, flexible working arrangements have also boosted the labour force participation rate among women, bringing it to 68.1%. It is clear that the workforce has matured to understand that different social expectations and family commitments can guide an individual onto different career tracks, and that men and women alike can contribute and bring value to both work and society in a number of ways.

Here, three women leaders share their career journeys: the different priorities, perspectives and approaches they have as women, and how others like them can attain success – as they define it.

Yiong Yim Ming, FCA (Singapore), Group Chief Financial Officer, City Developments Limited

Today, when a woman is pregnant, her company is likely to ask how she would like to structure her maternity leave and work out an arrangement accordingly. However, when Yiong Yim Ming was expecting her second child during the early stages of her career, one of her bosses said, “You are pregnant? Really? Again?” It was certainly not something that would be tolerated in the corporate world today. However, according to Ms Yiong, “I won’t say that it is the right way to think but, if I were to put myself in the shoes of an employer, I can see where the bias may have come from.” Having a staff member on maternity leave can be disruptive to the workflow, and it could mean that other members on the team would have to take on a heavier load to cover her. “There aren’t such considerations when it comes to the male staff as they don’t have to deal with childbirth. Paternity leave isn’t quite the same as there is some flexibility.”

The Group Chief Financial Officer of City Developments Limited (CDL) is one who promotes diversity and inclusivity, while recognising the differences between men and women. “There are different social perceptions and expectations of men and women. They have different roles in society and within the family,” she states plainly. For women who want to start a family, the biological clock, in a way, affects the timespan they have to get to the peak of their career. “Women carry more multifaceted roles, and have different priorities in their life journey. You want to date, settle down and have kids within a certain time period. This gives women limited time to complete their career journey,” she says. “I would say that men and women both share the same running track, but men get to run on it for a longer, uninterrupted period. Women can run the same distance, but they need more time to get to the finish line if they persevere.”

RECOGNISING WOMEN FOR THEIR CAPABILITIES

However, such differences should not prevent a company from embracing gender diversity and inclusivity. Men and women think and work differently too, and an organisation can benefit from those differences. “I personally don’t like a team where all the members are like peas in a pod. This doesn’t mean that we have a hotchpotch of people who cannot communicate with one another; instead, we want a group with diverse views connecting on the same level, so that issues can be examined through different lenses and the best solutions found,” she says.

Apart from avoiding the echo chamber effect a homogenous team could have, Ms Yiong also highlights that every team needs members to perform different functions, and having gender diversity helps the smooth running of processes within an organisation. “Women are like the glue in a team,” she explains. “They seem to have the natural ability, the EQ, to pull everything and everybody together. We are often penalised for being emotional at work, but even as one who works and thinks more like my male counterparts, I, too, see the benefits of being able to tap into the softer side when it comes to managing a team.”

Ms Yiong stresses, however, that companies should hire female talent in recognition of their skills, rather than to meet diversity and inclusivity quotas. “As a woman, I want to be admired for my capabilities rather than be put on a board just for them to meet the D&I quota. We see more women in leadership today, and I think that is driven not so much by policies but by societal changes. Women these days enjoy equal educational and job opportunities as their male counterparts, and they are very powerful.” The power also lies in their autonomy over their path in life. “The younger generation thinks differently and women today can choose to take a bigger role at work and smaller role at home, or vice versa. The choice is theirs to make.”

INDIVIDUAL PATHWAYS TO SUCCESS

Ms Yiong points out that each woman has her own life and own decisions to make. “There are many female leaders who simply do not understand why any woman would turn down career opportunities. But people should realise that however many opportunities are presented to you, the right one has to be one that you want,” she says. “There are so many types of women in the world, and you don’t have to all want the same thing.” She cites the example of a team member who chose to focus on family rather than step into Ms Yiong’s shoes as her successor. “I look at capabilities rather than gender and don’t rule out young ladies (who are likely to get married or start a family) or those with young kids for leadership roles. However, whether the talent wants to take up the opportunity is a matter of personal priorities.” She highlights that CDL is an organisation that has the bandwidth to accommodate members with different career ambitions. “It’s like a hand with fingers long and short – each is different but they come together to work perfectly,” she explains. “We embrace that difference and offer flexible work arrangements and career progression tracks. If you are comfortable with a smaller portfolio and are happy where you are for now, that’s fine too.”

Ms Yiong emphasises that the flexible work arrangements that have been put in place allow women to fulfil their duties at home without having to leave their job. “We don’t probe for a reason if you need to work from home, be it to look after sick children or to help your kids prepare for PSLE,” she says. “These are not formalised policies but, having proven that we can effectively work from home during the pandemic, we can legitimately offer that flexibility to our staff.” This is part of CDL’s efforts to support women within their workforce, and to nurture them at a pace that suits them. “I feel that success is when a person has no regrets even if he or she should disappear tomorrow,” says Ms Yiong. “I am greedy – I want a career, leadership and recognition. I also want a happy family and open communication with my children. I work hard to get them all.” But she recognises that everybody has a different matrix for measuring success, and “it should not be measured against that of others and certainly not by the number of board seats one holds”.

To her 15-year-old daughter and other young women, Ms Yiong has this to say, “Dream big, but take baby steps.”

“You won’t stretch yourself if you don’t dream big. But you also need to set achievable milestones so that you don’t get discouraged along the way,” she elucidates. “Remember to check with yourself along the way: is this still your dream? Life is a constant evolution and it is important to have the fluidity – especially in the constantly changing world today – to adapt and work according to circumstances. Whether your dream is to become Superwoman at work or Wonder Woman at home, to overcome obstacles and not lose faith in yourself is, in itself, a success.”

Jocelyn Goh, FCA (Singapore), Partner, Audit & Assurance & HR Partner, BDO Singapore

It is not just the hard and tough who rise in the corporate world. With a soft touch, a nurturing stance and a clear view of what she is striving for, Jocelyn Goh has proven that women can make it to the top, with the right attitude and self-belief. “Despite being a middle child with two brothers – and having a father who belongs to a generation which thinks that boys should naturally succeed the business – I never felt ‘second class’ because of my gender,” shares Ms Goh candidly. To be sure, parts of her life journey were steered by old-fashioned gender stereotypes and expectations especially when her grandmother favours boys over girls. However, the Audit & Assurance & HR Partner for public accounting, tax, consulting and business advisory firm BDO Singapore has always charted her journey with her own goals in sight.

“My father operates a small hardware business, which is still run by my family. When I was a teenager, he told me to help in the accounting department, ‘because that’s what women usually do’,” she says. He was not exactly wrong; most accountants at that time were women. “But just keeping the books or doing what was routine bored me; I much preferred negotiating with suppliers, bankers and other partners on operational and financial matters! The ironic thing is, he patiently taught me all the aspects of running a business too.” At that time, she was still studying for her accountancy qualifications. “A few years after having completed my qualifications and worked as an accountant, I told him, ‘Sorry, I am going to work as an auditor to expand my horizon, instead of just being an accountant for the family business!’,” she recalls with a laugh.

When the patriarch approached Ms Goh a few years later to rejoin the family business, she wasn’t afraid to negotiate for what she wanted. “We spoke candidly and I told him that I want to be made the Chief Operations Officer, as well as receive a share of the business. He was silent but that’s okay. Just as I understood how traditional his thinking is, I also wanted him to appreciate the fact that I want to take control of my life and goals,” she explains. “And let’s not forget that it is thanks to the exposure my father gave me that I’ve honed my skills in running a business.”

Since then, Ms Goh’s 27-year professional journey has taken her from public accounting to various other functions. Today, as part of BDO’s leadership team, she is involved in the strategic development of the firm, and is also a talent partner who is actively involved in its talent acquisition and development, quality management, and learning and development.

LIVING BY HER PRINCIPLES

Being in charge of her own life and making her own decisions is something important to Ms Goh, and it has worked to her advantage when it comes to her career progression. She remembers repeatedly challenging the decision of a senior partner, despite having to bear with the unpleasantness. “Most people wouldn’t have persisted for fear of offending their bosses. However, I feel that it is my job as a gatekeeper to protect my partners from risk, rather than to make people happy,” she says. “Doing what I feel is right – rather than what I have been told – has always been important for me.” In most organisations, people would unquestioningly defer to hierarchy, but Ms Goh credits BDO’s managing partner for always giving her the support and assurance that doing the right thing is the right thing to do. “Frankie’s mentorship over the years has been invaluable to my development as a leader. His coaching and role modelling of leadership principles such as ownership, accountability, and inclusion shaped my perspectives and success.” Frankie Chia is Managing Partner, BDO Singapore.

However, no man – or woman – is an island, and Ms Goh highlights that support from the people closest to her has been crucial in her journey to success. “We all have roles and responsibilities outside of work, and it is vital to discuss our goals and dreams with the most important people in our life: our family,” she attests. “If you have their support, ask yourself what is at stake in your pursuit of success; think about how things can be done differently in order for you to achieve your goals and, most of all, be cautious but bold.”

Despite going beyond her self-imposed goal of semi-retiring when she reaches her mid-40s, Ms Goh sees herself as a successful person. “I am happy where I am today and I will continue to do more of what I enjoy,” she says. Rather than associating success with her own achievements, Ms Goh ties it to the achievements of others. “I feel successful when those whom I coach benefit from my advice and go on to achieve their own goals; this is perhaps reflective of my nurturing nature as a woman,” says Ms Goh, who served as a mentor to many internally and externally. “I see the nurturing qualities in many women. We often define success based on what we give, rather than what we get. Therein lies the intrinsic difference between men and women, I think.” 

UNVEILING TALENT THROUGH DIVERSITY

As one who facilitates the training and development of emerging leaders in her firm, Ms Goh is a strong proponent of diversity and inclusivity. “Frankie had the great foresight to complete the firm’s digital transformation in 2019, just ahead of the pandemic, and it has allowed us to change the way we work and hire,” relates Ms Goh. She looked at global tech giants and thought to herself: if they can have employees across the globe, so can BDO when it is digitally ready. She went on to expand her talent net beyond geographical boundaries, and opened up positions to the best talents from all around the world, which in turn improved cultural diversity within the firm.

The agile work arrangement has also allowed the firm to activate talents who previously had stepped away from the workforce. BDO offers agile work arrangements as long as the role expectations can be fulfilled. For example, the firm has staff members who work mostly from home; it also offers foreign employees an arrangement where, for a few months each year, they work in their home country rather than in Singapore. This allows them to spend time with their families without having to take leave. “These arrangements have been very appealing to women who often shoulder the responsibility of caring for their children or the elderly,” explains Ms Goh.

On top of the agile work arrangements, Ms Goh has also redesigned the roles. “When COVID-19 hit, reformulating the nature of work became critical. We started to rethink the work process. One was to distil the work previously done by a single person so that he or she can concentrate on the core of it, and let the other aspects be taken care of by those with different skill sets,” she explains. “This allows us to draw back female talents who have been away from the workforce for a while due to family commitments, and who might be apprehensive about diving straight back in.”

While these efforts allow BDO to tap into qualified talents who previously might have been missed and, in turn, improve diversity and inclusivity in the firm, implementing them has not been without challenges. “Innovating for diversity and inclusivity is certainly a disruption, but it is the only way to betterment,” she opines. In her view, a strong belief in the benefits of diversity and authenticity within the leadership also drives such notions forward.

Ms Goh sees inclusivity as a journey that cannot be forced, and highlights that quotas and ratios do not necessarily equate to true diversity and inclusivity. “Some companies may say they have diversity and inclusivity policies. However, carrying out the policies is different from living by the core values. Here at BDO, our ‘why’ is ‘People helping people to achieve dreams’ – diversity and inclusivity are part of our authentic values and they are something we will continue to promote even without external push or pull factors,” shares Ms Goh. In an industry characterised by older men in suits, BDO walks the talk and stands out for its healthy partner-staff ratio and a 50-50 gender ratio among partners and across the firm. “If an organisation or a leader keeps to some sort of ‘old boys’ club’ mentality or outmoded ways of doing things, they would ultimately be the ones who lose out due to evolving talent needs,” she emphasises. “Everyone must be given an equal chance to shine and women today are as educated, skilled, vocal, resourceful and ambitious as men. Times have changed.”.

Judy Ng, CA (Singapore), Chief Financial Officer, Institutional Banking Group, DBS Bank

Judy Ng plays an instrumental role at the Institutional Banking Business Group (IBG) at DBS Bank, providing strategic recommendations, leadership, direction and management of the financial goals, objectives and planning as Chief Financial Officer (CFO). She also sits on the advisory board of Singapore Management University’s School of Accountancy. Looking at her leadership appointments, it might be difficult to imagine Ms Ng as a hardworking but soft-spoken young mother who once almost faded into the background amid peers who spoke out and pounced on overseas opportunities. She recalls the time when she was working at Credit Suisse, where she felt out of place as a local graduate with no global exposure. Further, she was reluctant to go for overseas postings as her spouse was required to be in Singapore, and she felt it her duty to stay with her young family. “Even though I progressed through the ranks in my 10 years at the company, I felt I was professionally overlooked as I was putting my family first and not going after the same things as my peers,” she shares.

However, that made her work harder at proving herself in other ways – something the diligent worker is not averse to. “My parents were less educated and had to work hard to make ends meet,” she reveals. “Similarly, the decisions I made were very much guided by a survival mentality. I studied accountancy because KPMG offered me a scholarship. I had no idea what accountancy or even KPMG was, at that point!” Just as she did internships during the school holidays to gain on-the-job experience, she challenged herself to speak up and put herself out there. “I trained myself to ask questions at every townhall session with the global bosses. I would be stammering on the spot despite having rehearsed the lines over and over but I told myself that I needed to learn how to communicate with the bosses.”

Ms Ng also pushed herself to grow professionally by enrolling in a part-time masters programme in applied finance, just after giving birth to her third child. “Everybody around me said I was crazy. But I was into my eighth year with the organisation and I felt that I was stagnating. Anyway, the kids will always need my attention no matter how old they get, so there was really no ‘better time’ as such,” she says. While her weekends and whatever free time she had were spent studying, Ms Ng says that the masters programme equipped her with a new field of knowledge: “it broadened my perspective and I could connect the dots in ways I never could at work”.

Today, Ms Ng, besides her role as CFO, is an elected member of the 2022 ISCA Council where she serves as Secretary. Anybody looking at her would say that she is a successful woman in business. But, as one who has had to juggle different priorities along her professional journey, Ms Ng fully respects the different pathways her team members might choose.

“I think my success is in being able to spot talent at different levels and help them to grow in the direction that they genuinely want to go,” says Ms Ng. Just as she is not afraid to promote an ambitious young person into a senior position, she also respects those who have a smaller appetite for change or different priorities outside of their career. “Grooming team members and bringing out the best in them in ways that work for them is essential for a leader to build a resilient team and, to be able to do that, to me, is success,” she says.

WORKING FOR WHAT YOU WANT

Although Ms Ng sets priorities for different phases in life for herself, she recognises that it might be challenging for the younger generation today to do the same. “I look at my three grown-up children and feel very lucky: life was much simpler then. Today, with multiple information influences and choices presented to them, life has become very complex,” she observes. Women today are often told that they can have it all, and that they should strive for it, but Ms Ng feels otherwise. “I had a super diligent staff member who was promoted to a team lead role and she started pulling even longer hours because of the bigger responsibilities and the steeper learning curve. Even though she was not my direct report, I made it a point to speak to her about how her work was impacting other areas of her life,” shares Ms Ng, a nurturing leader who believes in personal, face-to-face conversations with her staff. “I strongly feel that if your family life is unhappy, your work will be affected as well. Spouses have to agree on the boundaries and stick to them as a family unit.”

People also sometimes forget that their choices have consequences, says Ms Ng. Rather than try to compare one’s achievements with those of others, she advises young women to have an internal compass to determine what is important to them. “After setting your personal goals, you have to put in the effort and work towards them,” she says.

Ms Ng also encourages women to think bigger, and to act more boldly. “In hindsight, I could have been more daring in breaking the glass ceiling I experienced earlier in my career.” That said, she also thinks that women sometimes stymie their own growth. “In the past, we faced the challenges associated with the so-called ‘old boys’ club’, where male leaders hired from within their own networks. However, these days, the glass ceiling could very well be self-imposed. Women tend to stick to the ‘safe’ way of doing things, and they always feel that they need to be more qualified before they ask to take on something. Men generally put up their hands for opportunities even when they are less ready for the position. If you’ve set your professional growth as your first priority, push yourself out of the comfort zone to seize the opportunity when it comes. Dream big.”

Apart from dreaming big, Ms Ng also highlights the importance of being able to see the big picture. “I used to be a very task-oriented perfectionist who just wanted to check everything off the list. But I have come to realise that things don’t work like that in real life,” she shares. “You have to keep your eyes on the big things that are important, rather than fret over the minor issues. This could mean changing your perspective to get aligned with your bosses’ or your team’s, or even just gritting your teeth and getting through hurdles in your journey towards your destination. The key thing is to keep an open mind, but always taking ownership of your own career.”

“Friends that you make along your career journey will be there for you even if you have moved to a different stage. You know you can count on each other – friends are your valuable asset.”

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