Mind the gap

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2012, 12:00am


From the blogosphere firestorm swirling around the recent article 'Why Women Still Can't Have It All' in The Atlantic, it's clear the debate about equality for the sexes still has a long way to run. A recent series of public panels organised by The Women's Foundation focused on one facet of this - the gender gap in pay - and examined why women in Hong Kong are paid on average 25 per cent less than men. This is worse than the international average gap of 18 per cent, according to the International Trade Union Confederation.

Even accepting that many women in Hong Kong - particularly in the lowest socio-economic brackets - are employed in the four Cs: cleaning, catering, care-giving, and cashiering, where wages are low and jobs are often piecemeal or part-time, the gender gap is startling given Hong Kong's high female participation rate in tertiary education and in the workforce, as well as efforts by reformers like Anson Chan Fang On-sang who successfully lobbied to change pay gender discrimination within the civil service. Parity of pay was granted in 1975, although it took seven years before female civil servants were entitled to the same fringe benefits as male peers.

So why does the gap persist and what can be done? One key factor is that many economies historically applied different pay scales for female-dominated jobs and male-dominated jobs instead of a system of equal pay for jobs of equal worth. Pay levels tended to be suppressed for jobs mainly performed by women despite it being arguably of equal worth or value to society. This explains why firemen were historically paid more than nurses.

Simultaneously, a tacit job segregation keeps things this way.

Unfortunately, there is no, or scant, research in Hong Kong that examines the extent to which this kind of discrimination continues to exist. We believe it is high time this research was conducted.

At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, it is depressing to note that MBA male graduates enter the career track with a salary that is, on average, US$4,600 higher than their female counterparts, and this disparity only continues to widen as men and women gain seniority in their chosen field . Clearly, when women take maternity leave, opt to work part-time or leave their jobs altogether to raise a family, they often lose out in experience, prospects and pay, but the gap exists even when women are not taking time off and putting their career before their families.

While the majority of companies may not be deliberately exercising pay discrimination against their female employees, inadvertent discrimination undoubtedly exists. Firms need to watch they are not making assumptions based on gender and applying biases when it comes to bonuses and promotions. At the same time, as Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, has famously said: women shouldn't start taking it easier, thinking they are going to need a better work-life balance, before they are ready to leave the job. And they need to be strategic when it comes to pay negotiations.

As the myriad conversations ignited by The Atlantic article highlight, there are no easy answers. True gender equality requires social norms and the work culture to undergo a sea change.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO of The Women's Foundation. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues, developed in collaboration with the foundation