SINGAPORE – A respected name in the finance industry, Lily Choh started her investment career with GIC, the Singapore government’s sovereign wealth fund. Later she went on to work with Mercer Investment Consulting, before joining asset management firm Schroders where she has spent a majority of her career.

Rising through the ranks in her thirteen years at Schroders, she was appointed CEO of Singapore in 2021. Before that, she took on key business roles including Head of Institutional for Asia Pacific, Head of Distribution for Southeast Asia and Head of Institutional for Southeast Asia. She tells Women Icons Network about the challenges that the pandemic has brought for the working women and suggests ways for corporations to bring about gender equality at the workplace.

Pandemic Pandemonium

The last two years have been challenging for the economy as a whole, which Lily says has also caused a great disruption to people’s well-being and everyday life. Most importantly, it has rolled back years of progress towards gender equality, she adds. This, she believes, can largely be attributed to the work-from-home environment where women tend to shoulder the bulk of caregiving and household responsibilities.

She goes on to cite a McKinsey research which says that more women (25%) are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers compared to men (20%), due to the pandemonium caused by the pandemic. “Working mothers and women in senior management have been most significantly impacted. The disparity is even more apparent for parents with children under 10 years of age, where there is a difference of 10% between women and men willing to give up their careers for domestic responsibilities,” she informed.

Even in terms of gender  parity, the pandemic has set us back 36 years for the gender gap to close according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, shares Lily. It is estimated that it will take more than 135 years to close the gender gap globally. She also gives an example from closer home that depicts the current state of gender pay parity. A 2020 study by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower and National University of Singapore found that women are still earning less than men for doing similar work as they tend to undertake primary care responsibilities and take time off to do so.

On the bright side, she points out that companies are increasingly embracing and seeing the benefits of flexible working arrangements. This is one of the rare positive effect of the pandemic which particularly supports women who juggle their career and family commitments, giving them an important lever to strike a balance between work and personal life. An internal survey among Schroders employees revealed that an overwhelming majority (90%) of respondents are in favour of the flexibility of working from home for a certain number of days every week.

Developing Women Leaders

Lily thinks she was very fortunate to have found a supportive and nurturing work environment all through her career at Schroders. In fact, she credits her own success in part to having great female role models and a positive work culture that promotes equality, diversity and inclusion. The female leaders in Schroders are integral in fostering a sense of belonging for her at Schroders for over a decade and setting a pathway for development. She is aware, however, that her experience may not be representative of all the women, particularly in traditionally male-dominated industries like financial services.

Over the last few years, she says she has seen corporations place a greater emphasis on giving equal opportunities and development to women for senior management roles. “I believe the continued push for gender equality should start at the top and lead by example. Firms must also be transparent in tracking their progress in this aspect,” she suggests.

While it is a great first step for a company to commit to gender diversity, she feels that their efforts should go beyond that. Companies must set concrete and measurable goals with a data-driven approach to effectively track their progress on gender equality, advises Lily.

She thinks all organisations and leaders face varying degrees of challenges for leaders in achieving gender equality at workplaces, largely influenced by cultural differences and location dynamics. The ability to have open conversations on gender equality at workplaces is one challenge that all leaders must aim to overcome, she feels. “As leaders, we should create a safe environment for employees to share their experiences of workplace discrimination, such as pay gap or microaggressions. In turn, this will help raise awareness and inform our understanding to address these issues,” she believes.

How Men Can Play an Active Role

For Lily, offering a workplace environment where everyone can thrive is imperative to driving innovation, growing a sustainable and successful business. “Various studies have shown that greater equality leads to better levels of output and satisfaction amongst employees. Hence, I think it is critical to frame gender equality as a positive impact and benefit to  our organisation and our staff” she expounds.

She and the company are proponents of the idea that male colleagues need to be actively engaged to help #BreakTheBias. Schroders is, in fact, a proactive sponsor of the Asia Gender Equality Network and has a Male Allies Network to encourage conversations and drive structural change.

On special occasions like International Women’s Day and International Men’s Day, the company’s employees take time to discuss and reflect on pertinent issues such as leadership, gender roles and stereotypes. Through these initiatives, they ensure that male colleagues affirm the role of women at the workplace and support the firm’s drive in creating an inclusive workplace.

The Schroders Way

Lily is proud of the fact that Schroders Asia Pacific is the most gender-balanced employee population within the organisation, with 48% females and 52% males. Female representation in senior management is at 42%. All these are big achievements as the company has near equal representation in predominantly male-dominated business functions such as Distribution and Investment. No wonder then that it was one of the first FTSE100 companies to voluntarily disclose global Gender Pay Gap report back in 2017. In fact, they were even able to meet their goal of reaching 100% ESG integration across the funds they manage last year.

There are several initiatives of the company that help improve upon their ESG goals. Under the Buddy@Schroders programme, senior leaders volunteer their time to partner with our new hires, especially the millennials and Gen Z ones, with the aim of integrating them into the firm’s identity and culture in order to setting them up for successful careers. Schroders Singapore has partnered with social enterprise Mums@Work to launch a returnship programme that provides coaching and job training to women with the aim of reintegrating them back into the workforce after an extended career hiatus. Fair workplace practices have been implemented to enable equal career paths and benefits for every employee. The compensation reviews are considered from a gender and ethnicity perspective to minimise the impact of any potential unconscious bias in our decision-making.

The company sees these initiatives as one of the ways to improve the state of gender equality at workplaces. “We seek to actively influence corporate behaviour to ensure the companies we invest in are managed in a sustainable way. We expect these companies to collect and disclose key inclusion and diversity, human capital metrics and demonstrate how its human capital strategy is aligned with its business model,” explains Lily.

In fact, the company has been using data to assess where progress has been made. The use of internal metrics helps them hold themselves accountable and address gaps in representation as well as for external benchmarking. For example, their ranking in the Bloomberg’s 2022 Gender Equality Index was 77%, an increase of 4% from the previous year, is above average for the financial services sector. They are also listed as one of the top 75 employers in the Social Mobility Index. In order to engage with employees to keep pace with how people are faring in a time of accelerated change, internal surveys are undertaken on a regular basis.

Collaborating with their distributors to promote gender equality and financial empowerment for women is a key initiative that Schroders is committed to. In conjunction with International Women’s Day 2022, the company has launched a “Together as Women” strategic campaign with OCBC Bank. The objective is to #BreakTheBias and close the gender investing gap through gender equality and financial education efforts. “More meaningfully, it brings to life and action our advocate on the social part of ESG. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of financial well-being and preparedness, and making a change today can make a significant difference for the future. This is a simple and powerful message which we can all relay to the women in our lives,” shares Lily.