In many ways, Hong Kong is a great place for women’s equality. Girls are offered the same opportunities as boys when it comes to education. There are no barriers to employment – according to the World Bank, female participation in the workforce is 49%, higher than average for the region.
But if you look at more senior levels, the picture is not nearly so good. Community Business has been surveying the number of women on boards in Hong Kong for the past nine years, finding only a nominal improvement in that time. The past year has seen some advances: the overall representation of women on HSI boards has increased from 12.4% to 13.8%, and there has been a decline in all-male boards from 11 to 10. But there is still a long way to go.
So the question arises, why is this happening in Hong Kong, an economy that is in other ways so advanced?
“Women representation in senior roles vary with industries,” said Vanessa Tsang, Hong Kong Retail Marketing Manager at Shell. “In general, however, local cultural expectations of women’s role in the family results in working women putting family on a higher priority than career – this can be a contributing factor.”
This was echoed by Hannah Jeong, Senior Director of Valuation and Advisory Services at Colliers International. She noted that it is not just an attitude of the older generations – many new husbands and fathers today believe that they should be the breadwinner while the wife stays at home.
Jeong said that when women get married and have children, this is often the “critical point” for their professional lives. Those who choose not to return after their 10 weeks maternity leave will find it more difficult to find work in the future.
Jennifer Chan, Chairman of the Chamber’s Women Executive Club (WEC), said that another element impacting the number of senior women is that Hong Kong has a lot of family-run businesses. Around 90% of companies are SMEs, which still remain very male dominated. “With Chinese culture, it is still the son first,” she said.
She pointed out that Hong Kong does have one advantage over Western countries, where childcare options are costly. The city’s plentiful supply of domestic helpers enables the general entrance of women into the workforce.
But Jeong noted that there is a lack of reliable alternatives. Hong Kong has a limited number of private nurseries, which generally only take children from the age of two.
Such issues contribute to the “leaking pipeline” of female talent, said Fern Ngai, CEO of Community Business, and the cultural restrictions are often in place even before women enter the workforce. One way this can be addressed is by companies working with schools to promote STEM subjects.
Benefits of equality
Hong Kong is a tremendously successful economy already, so some may ask the question, why should it change?
“Corporates today need to have good representation of both genders at management level to form a balanced view of customer needs,” said Tsang from Shell.
Ngai agrees, saying that diversity and inclusion creates an environment for a wider range of perspectives, better problem solving, more sound decision-making and more innovation.
“For companies to be successful, they need to consider the needs of all of their stakeholders, including customers, investors and suppliers. Women represent half the population, and are key decision makers when it comes to investment and purchasing decisions – so their views are important.”
“It is about changing the culture,” Jeong from Colliers said. “If one director out of 10 is a women, your voice is not strong enough. If four to five out of 10 are female, that will change the culture of the company.”
And it is important that this goes right to the top level. Jeong said that when Colliers had reached a point where it had a lot of senior female staff, some colleagues considered that the situation was resolved.
Her response was: Do you see a female CEO?
“Yes, we are aiming at the C-suite,” she said. “We want to encourage people to aim at that level.”
Chan, who is also the Chairman of DT Capital, spent several years working in the Netherlands. She said that her experience showed that it is important to not just have more women, but to have more diversity in general.
“We are living in an era of globalization, and in such an open economy as Hong Kong, so you cannot just think in your own culture,” she said. “You need to open up. And to do so you need diversity – men and women, more people from abroad, more ethnic minorities.”
Making the change
Many large companies, while not using formal quotas, are introducing policies to even the playing field for women. These can be ensuring a balance of male and female for interview, as Jeong from Colliers explained: “At fresh graduate level, we try to have a 50-50 pool of candidates.”
Recognising the need to make it easier for people to work is another way that companies can facilitate women. “Corporates can help by increasing flexibility at the workplace to make it more family-friendly,” Tsang said.
She explained that, for example, in 2017, Shell introduced a 16-week maternity leave policy globally. “Shell also promotes work-life balance and staff can seek alignment with their line manager on work location options – for example, working from home – depending on the nature of their role. We also have a nursing room in the office to support staff with nursing needs.”
Ngai said that in addition to practical measures like flexible working and mentoring, it is important that companies set the tone from the top in communicating why they are committed to gender diversity, and in raising the visibility of female role models and engaging senior men to champion the issue.
“It’s really important for companies to speak to their female employees and understand what their needs are,” she added, “and not assume that every woman is the same.”
The extent to which governments should act is a lively topic. In some countries, there are government-mandated policies. In France, for example, there is a 40% female quota for board membership, and in the United Kingdom, women can take up to 52 weeks maternity leave.
Ngai said that one improvement would be mandating maternity leave in line with the International Labour Organisation’s recommendation of 14 weeks.
“The Government also has a significant role to play through education,” she added. “For example, avoiding stereotypes such as women being homemakers while men go out and work.”
Chan noted that the government itself is making good progress. “The senior government officials are around 30 to 35% female,” she said. “So they do act as a role model in that aspect.”
The cultural resistance to women working is proving difficult to shift. Chan noted that over the past 25 years she has seen great changes – but added that the progress is still too slow. She said that women need to be more proactive.
“Sometimes we are too modest as females, because we were brought up that way – keep quiet and don’t ask for things; you have to respect the man at the workplace and at home.”
This means that women are often not fighting for the senior positions that they are more than capable of doing. One way to support women as they climb the ladder is through support networks.
Colliers, for example, has a Women in Business committee, which is chaired by Jeong. It also works with similar committees from other organizations.
The Chamber’s WEC helps women from all companies in Hong Kong to connect and network. It has regular “cross-generation sharing” meetings to enable young executives to learn from senior women and for both sides to share their experiences.
“We see that as nurturing younger female executives. We also have regular seminars and workshops, and invite female role models to speak,” Chan said.
Tsang from Shell discussed the importance of major global campaigns such as the UN’s HeForShe event. “It’s a great platform for us to connect with and learn from other corporates on how they support the development of senior female leaders,” she said.
Chief Role Model
While Hong Kong may be lagging in senior women in general, we do at least have a woman in the top job, in our first ever female Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.
“That has given us a boost,” Chan said. “Inspired by that, we must become more aware of our abilities.”
In the old days, she said, women fighting for top jobs were criticized as being too aggressive; their ambition did not fit with the cultural expectations. “Now, we can look at Carrie Lam and know what we are capable of, and that we should fight for it.”