Tan Min Lan: To Prevail In The Post-Covid-19 Future, We Must Respond To Change

And why companies must learn to manage women differently from men, says the Head of Chief Investment Office (Asia Pacific) at UBS Global Wealth Management.

Tan Min Lan: To Prevail In The Post-Covid-19 Future, We Must Respond To Change

Tan Min Lan is the Head of Chief Investment Office (Asia Pacific) at UBS Global Wealth Management, where she leads a team that advises clients on wealth and investment strategies and opportunities.   

Your most important take away from 2020?
The year has been very unusual, to say the least. The Covid-19 pandemic has escalated from a health catastrophe into a worldwide recession and brought about profound changes in our lives. One lesson I’ve learnt, therefore, is to embrace these changes.

Only then can we become more resilient as we try to hold our own while battling powerful revolutionary forces, technological advances and shifts in societal expectations all at once. It’s not the most intelligent who will prevail but rather, the ones who are most responsive to changes.  

You spent most of the year WFH. Is this one of the profound changes you were referring to?
I lead the Asia Pacific team, which comprises 50 of us with 13 different nationalities and located in four different cities — Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo. Like many others, we’ve also had to adopt different ways to get work done, out of necessity. But I discovered it to be a most positive experience.

My personal efficiency has gone up; I’ve been able to achieve more both professionally and personally. By harnessing technology such as video conferencing software and removing the daily commute from the routine, I feel that my quality of life has improved substantially. I also enjoy being a lot more in control of my own time: I can take a quick break between meetings and make time for exercise. You know what, I would have killed for such a work arrangement when my children were younger! My son is now 19 and my daughter 15.

Some working mothers struggled with WFH.  
Of course! I have a colleague who has a four-year-old daughter, and she tells me it’s really hard. Once we were on the phone, and the girl was trying to get her mother’s attention [laughs]. “Mummy, who are you talking to? Your boss? What’s her name? Hello, Min Lan!” I’d almost forgotten my kids were like that too. WFH can be a double-edged sword. For example, in many parts of the world, where mothers have no live-in help and schools and childcare are closed, many ended up quitting their jobs to care for their children.

How does that affect the role of women in the workplace in a post-Covid-19 future?
Let me share some stats. Out of 193 heads of state in the world, only 21 are women. And among the SGX-listed companies, only 4.3 percent have female CEOs and 12.5 percent have female CFOs. So we are a long way off from achieving gender diversity. And it’s contributed to issues like gender pay gap — in high-income countries, women deal with the glass ceiling; in low-income ones, the sticky floor effect.

And the solution therefore is to get more women into the C-suite. But it didn’t start out like that. At the entry level, it’s a 50/50 ratio of male to female graduates. I believe so few women make it to the top because we lost too many in the middle, where starting a family and holding down a demanding job are often seen as binary options due to inadequate childcare arrangements.

What do you think companies can do to redress or address this?
I’d say the situation has improved. Female board presence globally has gone up to 33 percent — five years ago, it was just 15 percent. In Asia Pacific, it’s about 14 percent, half that of Europe; that’s not great, but it’s a start.

Firms need to understand that women should be managed differently from men. For example, we assess our career in the bigger context of our life goals. We shouldn’t have to choose between work and family. A woman plays many different roles, such as wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend… and she has various hobbies and causes. That’s why many thrive in companies that offer flexible work hours and minimal hierarchy, where performance is based more on output rather than facetime.

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