AIA Singapore’s Chunyen Liu: Diversity on the Buyside Should Come from the Top

By Gene Lin

The buyside industry evokes a reputation of both prestiege and enigma. Long held as a competitive and demanding career reserved for elites, the buyside is also known to be predominantly male, irrespective of regions across the world.

Chunyen Liu, chief investment officer at AIA Singapore, is one of the few female leaders on the buyside. With 15 years of experience in the field, Liu has been a veteran in the life insurance industry, and an avid champion of diversity and women representation on the buyside.

In our first instalment of the Buyside Power Women series, we ask Liu about her journey becoming a CIO despite initial self-doubt; what can top decision makers do to attract and retain female talent; and why positive institutional changes should start at the top.

L: Lynk | C: Chunyen Liu

L: What made you throw your name into the hat when the position of CIO opened up?

C: Our former Group CEO, Ng Keng Hooi, decided to create a CIO role for the company’s new business unit at the time. He and the other senior leaders encouraged me to try out the role so I went for it. 

Believe it or not, I was the first business unit CIO in the company, and it was due to the support from our senior male leaders. 

L: Given the demanding nature of the job, did you hesitate when accepting the position of CIO?

C: Definitely, it was very different from what I had been doing, and I had to go out of my comfort zone. But why did I take it? I think I wanted to challenge myself. My husband is also super supportive of me in trying out new things and just pushing the boundary. 

I constantly hear this feedback from my past mentors that sometimes women have doubts in themselves. From the outside, they probably fit all the bills and they look like a qualified candidate, but it is often us who are doubting ourselves. 

It was a bit of reverse psychology. I was thinking to myself: “You’ve been around for so long, you understand how things work, you’re really interested in this job, and if others believe you can do it, why would you doubt yourself?”.

It was something I had never done before, but I had the ingredients to succeed. I was trying to tell myself not to doubt myself when making the decision at that particular moment.

L: Do you think women are not applying for positions on the buyside as often due to lack of interest or self-doubt?

C: Let me give you an example. In the UK, there has been a movement going on for the past 20 years to boost female board membership but with marginal success thus far. So starting from last year in Asia, we have been putting more emphasis on shifting the dynamics.

Last year, I was at a seminar in the UK and there was a female senior leader in a fund house chatting with me… She was probably in her 50s and had started getting some board membership invitations. She said she called the head hunter and asked him “did you give me this opportunity just because I am female?” 

She told me that she brought this up with her daughter, and asked what she thought about it and the idea of gender inequality didn’t even come to her daughter’s mind. So I’m really hopeful the next generation won’t see gender as a roadblock anymore.

L: What can companies do to increase the rate of women applying for buyside positions?

According to Liu, self-doubt is the biggest obstacle getting in the way of women’s advancement to leadership roles. (Photo: Courtesy of AIA Singapore)

C: Training and education for hiring managers are key. Human resources can only do so much, and executive committee members like ourselves can only talk so much, but the key to change the mentality is to have all our hiring managers having the right mindset in the hiring process.

Hiring managers are the key to change the culture of a company. They have to understand that we embrace different cultures, and that diversity is important. In their training, we should purposefully emphasise these points so there can be a change in mindset. 

I don’t think we should have black and white rules where a certain percentage of positions should go to a certain group. That would defeat the purpose somehow because it won’t cultivate a mindset change in the long run. 

L: To what extent does hiring process contribute to gender disparity on the buyside?

C: I think the hiring process itself doesn’t necessarily contribute to gender inequality, or the disparity of that, on the buyside. 

To point out the cause that you are asking: First it’s the nature of the job, and second – which I think is more important – is the work environment created by the company in the form of employee benefits catering to different needs for different genders.

People will do their own assessment when applying for a job and the benefits that are associated with it. As a company, if we are seen as employee-focused and have benefits for both mums and dads, then it will encourage people of different genders to apply. 

For example, if you have a reputation of taking care of female employees such as giving parking slots to pregnant ladies close to the entrance, having more breastfeeding rooms, and providing more flexible work hours and locations, that will attract working mums. 

This part is probably the most difficult but also the most effective. I say difficult because the senior leadership in most buyside companies are men. It’s not because they don’t want to support women, it just never occurs to them that this is what women need, so they need to be reminded of that.

L: There are generally two strategies to tackle gender disparity. The first is to start from the bottom by hiring people with more diverse slates. The second is to enforce representation at the top and let diversity trickle down. Where do you stand between these two views?

C: I think the message has to come from the top. I don’t know if that is something to do with culture – I can’t blame culture for everything – but I do think the tone from the top is key to cultivate that mindset change [towards diversity and inclusion]. 

As someone who is at the top layer, you get used to certain things without realising it. It’s human nature not to challenge your own mindset all the time. This can be difficult when you want to change mindsets because the way people at the top allocate attention and resources signals where we owe the focus of our communication.

We understand a lot about how to enact change through the top layer, but you still need the middle layer to be on board with you as they are the most important people in your company who can cascade down [messages of diversity] to the staff. 

L: How can buyside firms retain female talent once they have been hired? Is it about mentorship, culture or something else?

C: Two things are important: mentorship and employee benefits.

Employee benefits come not just in the form of work-life balance but also in the form of flexible hours and locations. I’m sure that male workers will need something different from women as well. But providing different benefits to meet different needs from different groups is the key. 

Mentorship is the second important pillar because as you are moving up the corporate ladder, you are going through different stages of life as well. Sometimes it coincides with your career, sometimes it does not. You will face difficulties, for example, you might be single and you want to get married, but you are worried that long work hours would prohibit you from spending time with your [partner] and having kids and all that. 

Before women and men get married, it is probably still less of a problem since they generally spend equal amounts of time at work. But after getting married, women are most worried about sacrificing their family lives due to heavy workload. The times in your thirties also happen to be when there are most opportunities to move up, so it is very difficult to decide whether to have a kid or not at that moment. You need to spend a bit of time to adjust your mentality because going from being a staff to a manager is a huge change.

This is why having a mentor who has experiences on this challenge helps a lot because they can tell you how they dealt with the changes.

L: How should companies shape their parental leave policies to tackle the motherhood penalty issue?

C: Companies need to think about what sort of programme they need to put in place in order to identify the needs of high-performance, highly-talented women who want to take a short break.

I have seen this in Asia but not a lot. If you are a middle-manager – which is the most lacking in a company – your job is the most important but also hard to sustain, for both women and men. If companies recognise the importance of the middle management team and have a programme that allows them to take a break and come back six months or a year later, that might address the issue. It’s not so much about policy change per se, but more about investment in women talents.

L: What would it take for companies to enact that kind of parental leave policy?

C: You have to understand your workforce, that includes the distribution of their age, gender, and general demographics. So classify them differently and start finding out what they need at different stages of life. Different stages of life look different from countries to countries in terms of when they want to start a family. 

The second part is to think about what sort of company workforce you want to look like ten years from today, then you can start thinking about who you want to retain. That’s probably more about age and less about gender because you don’t want to force a gender ratio among the workforce, it should just come about naturally. 

The third part is to make that difficult decision of how to allocate the company’s resources. There is always a priority every single year. It’s not about giving up certain important elements, it’s just that maybe next year we’ll do something but this year we will focus on something else. The deliberation in executive committee meetings needs to talk more about human resources in order to spend time thinking about the [needs of employees].

L: If you have the power to change the buyside, what changes would you make?

C: If I have all the power and resources, I would celebrate our differences more. I mean we talk about being equal and all that, but we’re different and we need to be honest about it. I would invite the other gender into the discussion more often. I think the key is to have men as our [allies] because we need their support to have an equal environment. I’m sure there are benefits to include the other gender and set the agenda together on what we can really do to make changes. 

L: With that said, have there been some positive changes on the buyside you see over the years?

C: When I started out in New York, I could feel the glass ceiling was very much in place. But as time goes by – and maybe the Asian countries I lived in are just a bit more advanced than the US on that front – the ceiling is starting to fade away. What I told some students in past mentoring events is that don’t come in with that presumption. If there is a glass ceiling, it is probably one for you to break. 

On the buyside, the [glass ceiling] gets softer especially because you are competing less often with your co-workers since the buyside is all about teamwork. It never works if you are just the star performer, and when you are not competing with the person next to you, the glass ceiling goes away a bit more. 

Buyside Power Women is Lynk’s latest interview series that features conversations with female leaders and male allies on the buyside to increase visibility of women in the industry. The series covers the career journeys of female CIOs in different regions, and how advocacy for diversity could influence future capital allocation.

Stay tuned for upcoming Buyside Power Women editorial articles and live events here.