Penny Koo, is the General Counsel and Company Secretary of AIA Singapore. As part of the AIA Singapore management team, Penny supports the company’s continued business growth and transformational strategies with her legal expertise and strong track record, delivering success across the Group.
How diverse is AIA Singapore, in terms of gender?
AIA Singapore has a fairly even male/female split at both senior manager and executive levels, almost 50/50 exactly. On the Executive Committee 8 out of 13 of us are women, so it’s pretty progressive in both the traditionally male-dominated insurance sector and Singapore in general. There is always more that could be done, of course, but AIA is forward thinking.
Tell us about the AIA Women’s Network (AIAWNW) you’re involved with?
My fellow Executive Committee member Peggy Quek and I set up the AIAWNW in October 2017 with the tagline of ‘Where Empowered Women Empower Women’. It’s a forum for women across all levels at AIA to connect, support and inspire one another, with a view to us helping each other achieve our career aspirations and manage our work/life balance, among other things. Many women juggle work with raising a family in the face of a number of challenges in the corporate world. We want to provide a coaching and peer support culture to empower them to be successful in their career aspirations.
What does it take for women’s groups such as yours to be effective?
It needs the employer to be fully on board and supportive for a start. Once officially recognised by the organisation, then it needs leadership and a clear direction, otherwise the passion and the good intent fades. This means that women’s groups also need men: the group needs to raise awareness among all colleagues, not just women, about the issues women face within the company or sector. We run lunches and events with relevant speakers, and we want our male colleagues to be involved too, so that they in turn can be supportive of our efforts to empower their female colleagues.
There is a lot of talk these days about “change”, and it does seem to be happening, however slowly, but is there a change you’d like to see that doesn’t get much press?
Yes. I would like to see women’s attitudes towards getting support change slightly, in that we should all ask for help more often when we need it. Asking for help or guidance is often misconstrued as failure or weakness, but I see it as a sign of strength. The right mentoring and training will go a long way in propelling high-potential individuals to their fullest potential. It can be hard to portray oneself as a successful working mother, but also to admit to it being a struggle. Women want to show that they are as capable as men in the workplace, but we also need to ask for help when we need it. Being part of a support network means that as well as encouraging and supporting other people, we are also allowed to ask for it ourselves, and this is a cultural thing I would like to see change.
Is there any other advice that you would give to women to help them succeed in the corporate world?
I’ve always been a big believer in taking risks, which means you must not fear failure. You will fail, and probably often; but adversity is the mother of progress. Every career move I’ve made has involved a great deal of gumption, faith and hope (and of course appropriate due diligence prior!); from leaving Singapore for China, and then Hong Kong, before returning again last year. I believe that everyone, women and men alike, needs to be brave and not allow fear of failure cripple them from pursuing new opportunities or stretch assignments. For women, empower yourself for success by identifying who or what your enablers are and building a strong network around you for support. As JK Rowling said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something … unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and then go for it!