Equality: a long way still to go for women

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am

At a conference on gender equality earlier this month, Raymond Tang Yee-bong, the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, asked whether women today were indeed better off than their mothers and grandmothers.

'Women may be better educated than their mothers ... [and have] more choices,' he said. 'But many now carry dual roles as carers and income earners?'

While women today generally have more control over their lives than in previous generations, employers and society at large have yet to come to terms with what it means to accommodate women who work outside the home. This is despite the fact that 52 per cent of women in Hong Kong are in the workforce, alongside 71 per cent of men.

The results of a survey conducted by the Women's Commission are telling. These show that younger women, more educated women, higher income women and women who have not been married reported higher satisfaction with their lives than their counterparts.

Fanny Cheung Mui-ching of the Gender Research Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said the lack of childcare facilities in Hong Kong meant women with less education or from lower income families, who could not afford domestic helpers, were unduly burdened with both bringing in wages and care-giving. Add to that the latest police statistics on domestic violence and disputes - reports of which rose last year by 79 per cent over 2005 - and a rather dire picture is painted for working women with families. And yet, in successive surveys, women rate their families as the most important part of their lives.

The gender equality conference brought together experts in the field from Sweden, widely regarded as one of the most progressive countries in the world, to share their views on policy initiatives they say have helped the nation to get there.

From a time when women could get an education only in convents and had no legal rights of guardianship over their own children, women now hold 47 per cent of the seats in Sweden's parliament. Forty-one per cent of government ministers are female. Women serve as priests and bishops in the Church of Sweden and as military officers.

Gunilla Sterner, adviser to the Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality in Sweden, said early initiatives such as 'the world's most generous parental insurance' scheme helped the country take huge strides towards gender equality.

'The scheme allows the mother and the father to share leave when they have a child and to stay at home for a total of 11/2 years with 80 per cent of the salary,' she said. 'Sixty days are reserved for each parent and the rest can be shared equally. Today, men use 20 per cent of the days.'

Lars Plantin, a gender studies expert and senior lecturer at Malmo University, said surveys had shown that almost all men now participated in parental education and in the delivery of their babies.

'A majority of new fathers change nappies regularly ... and fathers are not only involved in playing with their children but also participate more and more in caring activities,' Dr Plantin said.

'What's in it for employers? According to research, it is profitable to invest in family friendly policies ... there's an increase in general loyalty and engagement in the work, a reduced tendency among employees to quit, reduced stress and less reporting of sickness.'

He said 80 per cent of fathers had taken parental leave and it was now widely accepted for men to do so.

Gender-policy initiatives did not stop there. In 1982, a law was passed making all assault and battery of women, even on private property, subject to public prosecution. In 1998 Sweden adopted a new act focusing on violence against women.

Controversially, in 1999, Sweden legislated to make the purchase of sex services illegal. In most jurisdictions, including Hong Kong, it is the prostitutes who are held criminally liable for soliciting sex services, but Ms Sterner said this was grossly unfair and victimised women who might already be victims of trafficking.

'Largely, women do not choose this kind of work by free will - they are forced into it, oppressed,' she said. 'The point is to hold men liable and decrease the market for sex services. In the first year, there were already fewer prostitutes on the street.'

The law has provoked strong reaction - positive and negative - with some claiming it protects women from violence, prostitution and prevents traffickers from bringing women into Sweden unwittingly for sex work. Others have said it is an inherently sexist policy. It does not address the issue of male prostitutes, deprives women of the right to choose prostitution to earn a living and makes sex workers' lives more difficult.

Dr Plantin conceded that the prostitution law was controversial also because of questions of enforceability and the evidence required to prosecute men who bought sex. In effect, they have to be caught with their pants down.

'But we must not underestimate the importance of a symbolic law - it is not right to hit children, it is not right to buy sex,' he said. 'Even if these laws may be difficult to enforce, they send a strong symbolic message and can help shape cultural norms.'

Rights of sex workers in Hong Kong certainly have a long way to go. Police officers caused an uproar in 2005 by detaining 40 suspected mainland prostitutes in an outdoor steel cage at a police station in full view of the public for 13 hours.

Mr Tang said he would welcome 'symbolic laws' in Hong Kong as a means to entrench a principle in the city's culture. 'In fullness of time, that symbol becomes reality. We have to start somewhere.'

Hong Kong has come a long way since the Sex Discrimination Ordinance was enacted in 1995. Public awareness of sex discrimination issues was only 35 per cent in 1996 and rose to 87 per cent in 1998, according to a survey by the commission.

But even as women outnumber men in obtaining undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, the median monthly earnings of women are consistently lower than those of men in the vast majority of fields. The median income in 2005 was HK$11,000 for men and HK$8,000 for women per month.

Poorer and less educated women also suffer from a lack of childcare facilities and are more likely to drop out of the workforce when they have children, according to government statistics.

Ms Cheung said apart from the usual role of juggling careers and families that women had to play, they were disproportionately affected by poverty and 'new patriarchies' such as the 'revival of polygyny', trafficking for prostitution and the portrayal of women as commodities in advertising, media and through internet pornography.

'There is an increase in cross-border mistresses and second wives for Hong Kong men,' she said. 'This is a huge challenge.'

Only between 15 and 25 per cent of government directorate, Legislative Council and Executive Council posts belong to women.

But even with a government that is progressive in the field of gender equality, Swedish women's woes are far from over.

While 80 per cent of women are in the Swedish workforce, they occupy few leading positions in private enterprises. Their salaries are also lower - on average about 80 per cent of those of men. And even if working parents in Sweden have parental leave rights, exercising these rights can be impeded by a lack of family-friendly employers, Dr Plantin said.

'Most of the top managers are still men and many of their wives are housewives or work part-time, so that affects how they view women,' he said.

'It is also to do with traditional gender norms as well. Still, only 20 per cent of the parental leave allowed is taken by men, and mothers have to adjust to a much higher degree. Many work part-time while the children are young and they more often take leave when children are sick.'

The result is that many employers pre-empt such exercise of rights. A recent survey of women found half of those aged 20 to 30 were asked in job interviews whether they had or planned to have children. And 63 per cent of employers said pregnancy was an obstacle to getting employed.

A UN expert on violence against women last year concluded a mission to Sweden by saying that the experience there had been contradictory. 'While the equal opportunity agenda has paved the way for public representation of women, it was not effective in countering the deeply rooted patriarchal gender norms that sustain unequal power relations between women and men,' he said.

A 2001 survey, commissioned by the Swedish government, found that 46 per cent of all women had experienced male violence since their 15th birthday and 12 per cent had been subjected to such violence in the year prior to the survey.

The lesson learnt was that government policies could go only so far. The ongoing push for gender parity had to be driven by a combination of policy, a resetting of cultural norms and a partnership between public and private sectors reinforcing the norms in employment.

Dr Plantin said that the Swedish initiatives were based on the principle of the 'double emancipation' of men and women.

'The 21st century must be a century of enlightened men,' Ms Cheung said 'It must be about engaging men as equal partners in the advancement of gender equality, for men to be fully encompassed into their own family and societal roles.'