The He For She forum in March to mark International Womens Day was a great success, with 500 senior executives attending the event organized by HKGCC and the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Hong Kong.
But the He For She campaign is not just about one day, and a workshop at the Chamber on 3 October was part of the ongoing campaign for gender equality. At the event, which was also co-organized with the French chamber, three speakers shared their own experiences in the workplace and discussed what their companies were doing to smooth the path for female staff.
Campaigns for female equality have traditionally been driven by women. He For She has a different approach, and has successfully attracted more men to the cause. But Lisa Foley, Asia Managing Partner of Brunswick, noted that women still need to continue to push for their rights in the workplace. She said that often, women are too modest and question their own judgement.
“We don’t stand up for ourselves,” she said. “We should have more confidence.”
Foley also made the point that “experience doesn’t expire.” Outside of those who work in very fast-moving high-tech industries, women should not be held back if they have taken a few years out of the workplace, to have children, for example. To help women who have children or other caring responsibilities, Brunswick offers a range of options including flexible and part-time hours.
Nigel Smith, Managing Director of Colliers International Hong Kong, noted that dealing with entrenched attitudes and established systems is not easy. “Change is one of the hardest things to do – people don’t like change,” he said.
Smith also said that building awareness was key. He noted that when he joined Colliers, the company felt that it was already doing well in terms of gender equality. But compared with some of his previous employers, Colliers was actually quite far behind. Since then the company has overhauled its way of working to encourage more collaboration. This has also improved the gender balance to the point where Smith could report that a majority of people at the company’s top-table Wednesday morning meeting were female.
Martin Fehr, Managing Director and Regional Head Asia for Principal Investments and Acquisitions of Swiss Re, shared his personal experience of growing up with a professional working mother. She was a CEO in a male-dominated industry in Switzerland, a country that only granted women the right to vote in federal elections 1971, and in all local canton elections in 1991. So his first-hand experience has been a great influence in his drive to help women succeed in their careers.
As a reinsurance company, Swiss Re is expert in making use of data. The company also now uses this treasure trove of information to track things within the company like promotions and gender distribution.
“It is eye-opening,” Fehr said. “Even in a progressive company like Swiss Re there are pay gaps.”
To change this, he said that nurturing females to act as role models and tone from the top are crucial. “We are creating an environment that allows women to be successful, and role models is an important part of that.”
A lively Q&A session following the speakers’ presentations covered a wide range of topics that affect women in the workplace including boardroom quotas, stereotypes of behaviour and the glass ceiling. A number of participants noted that both the regulatory regime and cultural pressures in Asia can act as obstacles to women climbing the career ladder. Hong Kong’s maternity and paternity leave allowance, for example, is far behind many other developed jurisdictions.