article banner

Women in Business 2021: A window of opportunity

For 17 years, Grant Thornton has been tracking the global progress of women in senior management. In the last 12 months, unprecedented events have had an unforeseen and unparalleled impact on that progress.

The coronavirus pandemic has driven a fundamental shift in global working practices. It has forced millions into a remote working model. It has exposed weaknesses in supply chains; caused businesses to assess the factors essential to survival; and underlined the mid-market as the beating heart of many sectors, central to keeping economies functioning.

These seismic shifts have, inevitably, had repercussions for women in business, their prospects and the challenges they face in the coming months and years. The business landscape appears to be undergoing permanent changes, not least due to the more flexible, hybrid working environments being adopted by many organisations.

An increase in overall leadership positions for women in Singapore

The number of women holding overall senior leadership positions in mid-market businesses in Singapore has hit 33%, despite the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Grant Thornton’s annual Women in Business report. Globally, women in senior leadership positions has passed the critical 30% threshold, which research[1] shows is the minimum representation needed to change decision-making processes. All regions surveyed except for Asia Pacific (28%) have now surpassed the crucial 30% milestone.

David Sandison, Singapore Practice Leader & Head of Tax at Grant Thornton Singapore says: “Reaching this significant milestone for women in senior leadership roles is important for businesses in Singapore. At Grant Thornton Singapore, we are seeing the benefits of gender diversity firsthand, with the appointment of three new female partners over the past year. In order to reap the benefits of a better gender balance, businesses must continue to take action to enable women to realise their ambitions.”

While the overall proportion of women leaders rose to 33% in Singapore, with a 2% increase year-on-year, after a 2% dip in 2020, there were a lower number of women across operational C-suite roles in Singapore compared to last year. The proportion of female CEOs was down 5pp to 6% and female CFOs down 9pp to 32%. However, the proportion of female CIOs was up significantly at 24% (+10pp on 2020) and COOs were also up 4pp to 24%.

It is heartening to note that businesses in Singapore are enhancing initiatives to achieve gender balance, with initiatives such as providing mentoring and coaching (54%), ensuring equal access to developmental work opportunities (50%), enabling flexible working (47%), creating an inclusive culture (45%), and reviewing recruitment approaches (42%), seeing an increase. More businesses are also actively improving their gender balance, with only 3% of surveyed firms not taking any initiatives to achieve gender diversity.

Additionally, over two-thirds (72%) of Singapore respondents agree that in their organisations, new working practices as a result of COVID-19 will benefit women’s career trajectories long-term. Moreover, 70% of Singapore respondents agree that in their organisations these new working practices have enabled women to perform greater leadership roles. 

Sze Min Yu, Partner of Audit and Assurance at Grant Thornton Singapore says: “It is promising to see businesses in Singapore are focusing on employee engagement and inclusion, as the way we work has changed significantly due to the pandemic. As the economy starts to recover, it is critical for businesses to continue to work towards achieving gender balance.”

A window of opportunity

At Grant Thornton, we believe there is now a window of opportunity during which mid-market leaders can accelerate the progress of their businesses into a more inclusive future – or choose to revert to previous models. The benefits of diversity at a senior level include improved financial performance, leveraging talent, reflecting the marketplace and customer perspectives, and increased innovation. All of which will help businesses successfully navigate these uncertain times.

The Women in Business 2021 report outlines the position of women in senior management around the world as we witness the emergence of a more diverse and inclusive leadership model, and highlights the actions leaders need to take to create a step change in the proportion of high-level roles held by women.


[1] Dahlerup, D. (2006). The Story of the Theory of Critical Mass. Politics & Gender, 2(4), 511-522. doi:10.1017/S1743923X0624114X