The First Word: Advancing gender diversity at the highest levels of leadership

The business case for diversity has long been established. Companies with more diverse leadership tend to perform better financially, as having a breadth of perspectives helps with better decision-making. As organisations navigate an increasingly complex global landscape, harnessing the full spectrum of talent is not just a moral imperative – it’s a competitive edge.

Driven by this understanding, companies have made progress in terms of women’s representation in the boardroom and C-suite. Deloitte’s latest Women in the Boardroom report found that, in 2023, women hold 23.3% of board seats globally, a 3.6 percentage point increase from 2021.

In Southeast Asia, where we surveyed respondents from five geographies (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand), women hold 19.9% of board seats, a 2.8 percentage point increase from 2021. While this figure stands lower than the global average, it is nevertheless a sign of positive change, especially considering that many countries in the region do not have legal requirements or quotas for the number of women on boards.

Women’s representation in the highest executive roles, in comparison, does not fare as well. Only 6% of CEOs in the world are women, representing just a 1 percentage point increase from 2021.  At the current rate of change, global parity for CEOs would not be reached before 2111 – almost 90 years from now.

However, instead of lamenting the status quo, I believe we have reason to be optimistic when we look at the progress being made in Southeast Asia. For starters, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand now have a greater share of female CEOs than the global average. With the exception of Singapore, countries in the region generally reported an increase in the percentage representation of female CEOs between 2021 to 2023. The Philippines leads the pack in terms of growing its share of female CEOs from 6.8% in 2021 to 12.0% in 2023, while the rest of the region saw change at a comparatively slower pace.


Even though there are improvements year-on-year, the pace of change must quicken. With many companies preferring to recruit board members with CEO experience, the rate of progress is unlikely to accelerate significantly without a fundamental change in how companies approach their leadership appointment process. The ecosystem as a whole – businesses, governments, civil society, and individuals – needs to recognise the continued efforts behind the scenes that go towards supporting the needs of women at home and in the workplace.

To realise the benefits of gender-diverse leadership, boards and leaders should keep in mind the following guiding principles:

Firstly, boards and C-suites must confront ingrained biases and rethink traditional approaches to leadership selection. Narrow searches for candidates with previous CEO experience may inadvertently exclude highly qualified women. Instead of defaulting to historic experience profiles, the emphasis should shift towards a diverse mix of skills, backgrounds, and capabilities so that organisations can position themselves for success amidst the complexities of the current business landscape.

Next, management and board leaders need to be intentional and think out of the box to deploy creative solutions for women to gain governance experience. They could, for example, place high-potential candidates on boards of subsidiaries or other entities to fuel not only their own board and C-suite pipelines, but also corporate pipelines more broadly.

In addition, companies need to expand their skills profile requirements to further diversify their boards and shore up critical skills gaps, and build the pipeline of future women leaders so that progress can be sustained and enhanced into the future. Boards must challenge themselves on the pace of gender advancement, ensuring that women are moving up the ranks at the same rate as their male counterparts. Critical junctures in the pipeline where women leaders may be lost must be identified and addressed.

To lead the way for change, organisations should establish supporting initiatives that empower women and elevate female representation in leadership positions. It is critical to empower women to take on leadership positions by providing them with access to opportunities through training and mentoring programs. For instance, in Singapore, Deloitte has initiatives such as the Board-Ready Women Program which prepares senior women executive leaders for board service, and the SheXO Young Leaders Challenge which cultivates future women business leaders.

Other organisations are also working to drive positive change, including Singapore’s Council for Board Diversity, United Women Singapore, BoardAgender, and the Singapore Institute of Directors, to name a few. The benefits of gender diversity in leadership are undeniable, and it’s time for boards and C-suites to take decisive action to ensure that women are proportionally represented at the highest levels of management. By building upon the current momentum, I am hopeful that we can look forward to greater strides towards gender equality in the boardroom and beyond.

About the authordeloitte_seah-gek-choo

Gek Choo leads the Boardroom Program in Deloitte Southeast Asia and Singapore. She is also the Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer for Deloitte Southeast Asia. She has more than 25 years’ experience in public accounting in Singapore, with a focus on companies in the real estate and hospitality industries.

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Chief of Staff Asia