A workable solution for women

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 July, 2006, 12:00am

The Council for Sustainable Development released a paper on Hong Kong's ageing population last week, which deserved more than the paltry media attention that it got. The paper suggested increasing child-care services and tax relief to make it easier for mothers to participate in the labour force - as a cure for Hong Kong's loss of competitiveness, caused by our greying population.

As a married and working woman, I have a hard time understanding the logic behind the council's prescription for tackling the problem. It noted that Hong Kong's ageing population is caused, partly at least, by the low fertility rate - which reached 0.96 children per woman last year. I hear from female friends and colleagues that long working hours and workplace pressures contribute to the reluctance of working women, especially professionals, to have children. They want to avoid conflicting demands at work and home.

But the council's suggestions would accelerate the problem rather than alleviate it, in the long run. By pushing more women into the job market, it would in effect help to reduce the number who otherwise would have the time and energy to raise families. The fact that the council put such a self-defeating proposal forward shows how poorly some government advisers understand the issue of women's fertility.

What discourages career women from having children lies in the management style of most institutions and corporations. Take the academic community as an example. Even in that profession, where meritocracy reigns, women are a rare species in senior management meetings and high-profile conferences.

More often than not, young women enter the academic profession at their most productive age, both biologically and intellectually. If they take on the role of motherhood, then child-care duties would prevent them from building their new careers with undivided attention and devotion.

Their upward mobility would be curbed by their inability to take part in international conferences, engage in time-consuming field research and network with potential collaborators abroad.

Human-resources managers in Hong Kong's academic institutions and businesses tend to view female staff no differently from men. While nominally to promote equality, this attitude in fact promotes inequality because it ignores women's special childbearing needs.

Most career women here cannot move to part-time positions without having their career path closed off or their pay cut disproportionately.

This sets Hong Kong apart from Sweden, where 76 per cent of women stay in the job market - yet the fertility rate remains an impressive 1.7 per woman.

The most effective way to raise the fertility rate is to change rules and norms in corporations and institutions relating to personnel management, appraisals and promotions. Increasing child-care services could help, too.

Providing more tax relief for having children might also help. But women with high aspirations and good career prospects would not likely want to trade their careers for some meagre tax relief.

The key lies in promoting gender-sensitive management in corporations and institutions: it has intrinsic values, and would have a huge, positive social impact.

Kitty Poon is a research fellow at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a part-time member of the government's Central Policy Unit

Kitty Poon

'Most career women here cannot move to part-time positions without having their career path closed off'