Sheryl Sandberg, Meg Whitman and Indra Nooyi, as well as Singapore’s Chua Sock Koong and Olivia Lum – all are household names who control billions of dollars in global stock market value. More significantly, they have also cracked the proverbial glass ceiling and scaled the corporate rungs to the top. Still, they are but a small percentage of women in senior management roles around the world. What is hindering more women from a breakthrough? This question seems hackneyed, but bears repeating, especially with the dismal state of affairs.

Over dinner co-organised by The Peak and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), business leaders from various industries including hotel, banking and retail agree that the single barrier that affects all women is the exclusion from social cliques and conversations that open doors to development and promotion. Euleen Goh, who sits on the board of DBS Group Holdings and DBS Bank, and who is Her World Woman of the Year 2005, says: “I truly believe that part of the reason why there aren’t more women sitting on boards is because men are very ‘clubby’. They recommend one another jobs and projects.”

Women hold only 9 per cent of board seats in Singapore, and woman board chairmen make up just 7 per cent, reported Deloitte in June. The lack of a more formal support system was what spurred Tan Su Shan to set up the Financial Women’s Association of Singapore (FWA) in 2001. “We had to create our own network because we weren’t part of any club,” says the MD and group head of consumer banking and private bank at DBS Bank.

Tan Su Shan

Without such peer support, former FWA president Trina Liang-Lin says that workplace challenges would have been doubly tough. She speaks from personal experience. Recalling the early days when she started working in the financial sector, the MD of investment research consultancy Templebridge Investments says: “There were very few women in the dealing room at the time and as a very young person, I was trying to prove myself. Every time I did well, I got slammed by my male bosses. I wished that I had a woman boss because I thought she would have understood where I was coming from and what I was trying to do.

“When FWA came along, it was really gratifying for me to know of other women in the industry who were dealing with the hard knocks and succeeding.” Liang-Lin is also president of the Singapore committee for UN Women. More than just succeeding in their professions, women have lifted bottom lines. In a Credit Suisse survey of over 3,000 companies conducted between 2005 and 2013, those with more than one woman on the board returned a compound of 3.7 per cent a year over those with no women.

Elim Chew and Trina Liang-Lin

Companies in the top 20 per cent in terms of financial performance have 37 per cent of leadership roles filled by women, reported US human resources consultancy DDI and non-profit business research group The Conference Board in the results of a worldwide survey released in July last year. A woman’s instinct has also been proven to bode well for hedge funds, US-based index provider Hedge Fund Research found in a study that spanned 2007 to June 2015. Those run by women have returned 59 per cent, compared to average returns of 37 per cent. Data also suggests that women manage risk better and are less prone to wild gambles. In addition, they are more likely to take a long-term view.

Yet, women hold only 14.2 per cent of the top five leadership positions at S&P 500 companies, a CNN-Money survey showed in March. In Singapore, 27 per cent of the most senior roles are occupied by women, according to headhunter firm Hays in the same month. This, says Goh, is not healthy. She adds: “If everyone goes to the same games and bars, reads the same books and talks about the same things, there will be blind spots.”

As entrepreneur Elim Chew points out, one area that men still don’t quite get is emotional intelligence. “We are more nurturing,” she adds. Kay Kuok, executive chairman of Shangrila Hotel, chimes in: “It’s inborn. In fact, some of our female hotel general managers are far better than their male counterparts. They just have more empathy.” Indeed, human interaction is a fine art that is informed by many factors, including social norms and being gender-conscious. Simon Tay, chairman of SIIA, confesses to being “more patient with women because they are more emotionally wired”. He adds: “I know women really try their best to deliver good work, so I feel I should do my best to respect that and, therefore, couch criticism.”

(L-R) Euleen Goh, Christopher Wilson & Simon Tay

Apart from adopting a different attitude on the corporate level, change must also happen at home. Spouses and partners have an equally, if not more, important role in encouraging women to reach their fullest potential. Yet, they have hampered such aspirations, says social entrepreneur Christopher Wilson. The co-founder of Social Capital Venture Development says: “I blame men. Chauvinism still looms large and this stops women from getting to higher positions. Society has conditioned men to be macho and feel that we should be the bosses. It’s still a huge issue – at work and at home.”

For entrepreneur Y.Y. Low, the journey has been challenging. After quitting the workforce when she became a mother eight years ago, she started wellness and beauty salon Hadara Aesthetics early this year. “Part of the success of a woman being out there is to have a very supportive spouse, someone who really understands your decisions and recognises who you are. My husband sees me more as a mum, so the transition to being an entrepreneur has been a bit difficult.”

Choo Kenyi and Y.Y. Low

Which begs the question: Can women have it all? Look around us, salon guests urge. Many women are exemplary models in perfecting the elusive work-life balance. Advice doesn’t always have to come from the top. Guidance and “air time” can be shared among other senior staff and industry newcomers, says Joanna Lee-Miller, group editor of luxury and custom titles at SPH Magazines.

Set priorities, says Kuok. She adds: “We have to be a wife, mother and juggle a career all at the same time. The men don’t have to do that. If you get your priorities right, you can manage. Unless you make plans, you’re not going to be able to accomplish anything. There are tools that can help you, but you have to know how to use them.”