Women are playing a significant role in Hong Kong’s growing start-up ecosystem, whether they are moving to newly launched companies or starting their own businesses. This is great news for the city’s start-up scene, as research shows that gender diversity accelerates the pace of innovation and success.
But looking at this trend from another angle, it means that major corporates are losing some of their most capable and driven employees.
So what can corporates learn from start-ups about creating an environment that is encouraging for women? This was the topic at a breakfast workshop co-organized by HKGCC and the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Hong Kong on 30 November. This event, hosted by Societe Generale, was one of a series of workshops as part of the ongoing HeForShe campaign for gender equality.
Sam Van Horebeek, partner at Wavestone, moderated the discussion. He introduced recent research by Wavestone that revealed the three main reasons why women choose to move: participative culture, flexibility and career progression.
Participative culture – which can be seen in the horizontal structure often found in start-ups – benefits businesses as well as employees, Van Horebeek said: “If you invite your employees to join your discussion, you drive innovation better.”
The three speakers on the panel – Debra Meiburg, Founding Director of Meiburg Wine Media; Ines Gafsi, Co-founder of Female Entrepreneurs Worldwide; and Valerie Depaux, Chief Operating Officer for Legal, Asia Pacific at Societe Generale – represented the worlds of small companies, entrepreneurs and large global corporations, respectively.
They agreed that participative culture is extremely important in creating an environment that allows women to develop their careers.
Depaux said that strategies that work for a small company are often more difficult to implement in larger firms. But that has not stopped Societe Generale from introducing changes. For example, it runs workshops to build confidence among more junior members of staff. “If women feel comfortable in the workplace, they will have the confidence to speak up,” she said.
This willingness to put themselves forward and have their voices heard is important in helping women progress. Meiberg agreed on this point: “Speak first,” she advised.
Gafsi added that giving a voice to staff member of all levels can help companies to understand markets better and to stay relevant. “Junior staff have lots of fresh ideas,” she said. “They know what's going on in the world.”
The panel noted that bigger companies sometimes failed to acknowledge the efforts of entry-level employees, which can be disheartening and drive them towards a more appreciative environment. Gafsi recalled that when she first started working, “nobody listened to me.”
Van Horebeek remarked that large corporations have often been slow to embrace flexibility. Depaux said that, for its part, Societe Generale has been moving in a more flexible direction, and has a department within HR that deals with work-life balance. Importantly, flexibility is offered to all the staff, not just women.
There is some resistance, generally, to the concept, but Depaux pointed out that managers should be aware of how their staff are progressing with their work – whether they are based in the office or not. “The main question is, do you trust your staff?” she said.
Depaux reported that the flexible initiative has been a success so far, is popular with staff, and also has the great benefit of saving on office rent.
Meiburg described her own company as “the very definition of horizontal,” but she also noted that doing away with the hierarchy can bring challenges. The lack of framework can be difficult to manage, particularly for experienced employees who are accustomed to a more structured environment.
Gafsi also pointed out that an important reason driving women to start their own companies is because they want their work to have purpose. One way larger corporations can adopt this idea is by giving staff the opportunity to spend time working on a project that they feel strongly about, she said.