Marching towards equality at work

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 May, 2007, 12:00am

More women are getting white-collar jobs and rising to senior levels, a trend that will have positive long-term consequences

The latest research has found that more women are participating in senior levels of commercial organisations in Hong Kong and the mainland than ever before.

And with women outnumbering men six to four in some schools in Hong Kong, one expert has predicted that there will be more women working in white-collar jobs than men in 20 years' time - with sweeping consequences for the workplace.

At present, however, many women who do make their way into senior management roles are being pigeonholed by men bosses, and some companies still refuse to hire women, they say.

The status of women in the workplace in Hong Kong has improved markedly in the 12 years since Hong Kong first put in place the Sex Discrimination Ordinance and, in some cases, has even overtaken some western economies.

A report recently released by business advisory company Grant Thornton found Asian companies to be world leaders in employing women at senior management level.

According to the report, 83 per cent of Hong Kong businesses and 91 per cent of mainland Chinese businesses employ women senior managers, as opposed to 69 per cent in the United States.

Ten years ago, women in Hong Kong were more blatantly discriminated against on the basis of gender.

Investment firm Lippo Securities stirred controversy in 1996 when then-chief executive Peter Woo ordered that any women who turned up to work in trousers would be fined HK$300.

It was not until 1997 that the Hong Kong Club, once exclusively for gentlemen, allowed women to join as members.

Since then, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), set up at the same time that the Sex Discrimination Ordinance was first passed, has issued a code of practice for companies to maintain a gender neutral policy in dress, and to not subject one particular gender to any unfavourable treatment in dress requirements.

Last year, the commission received only 31 cases concerning sex discrimination, down from 142 in 2005.

An official said that 90 per cent of cases involved women. In the first three months of this year, only 10 such complaints have been lodged.

At present there are still many more men in senior management positions in Asia than women.

'While the findings reflect an upward trend of the percentage of women in management roles for many economies, there is only one country, the Philippines, achieving true parity in man/woman share,' said Alison Wong Fung-ying, partner, specialist advisory services at Grant Thornton.

Women make up only 35 per cent of senior managers in Hong Kong. However, a quick look at women students entering the professions gives a clear indication that this is set to change: 74 per cent of chartered secretarial students are women, according to the Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries, and the Law Society reports that 67 per cent of trainee solicitors are women. The universities are also full of women.

There was currently a ratio of six women to four men at undergraduate level at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and these women students were excelling in their studies, said Fanny Cheung Mui-ching, director of the Gender Research Centre at the university's Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies.

'The girls are actually doing better [than boys] in school, from primary through to tertiary education,' Professor Cheung said.

It is clear that this influx of highly educated women will soon have an impact on gender balance in the most senior levels of business.

'Based on the assumption that the present gender ratio of university graduates continues, 20 years from now there will be lots more women than men in the professional ranks,' said Raymond Tang Yee-bong, chairman of the EOC.

He said that this would have a positive impact on the workplace in Hong Kong, which at present placed too much emphasis on long working hours.

'A work landscape [dominated by women] would highlight the need to address family support,' Mr Tang said.

'It would give rise to a working environment that takes into account the needs of working mothers and the importance of family friendly employment policies.'

Many believe that the proliferation of women in professional and senior executive roles is due to the city's sophisticated and progressive finance community aimed at global success.

'I think the Hong Kong people are just very commercially astute,' Mr Tang said.

At the end of the day, if the best person to deliver the best commercial outcome is a woman, then they will go with that person,' said Gina McLellan, country manager for recruitment specialist Hudson.

It is generally accepted that women can achieve equal, if not better, results than men, she said. Women can be harder working, more reliable, and often have more 'soft skills' to offer.

Companies are looking for these communication skills in their managers, hoping that this will help them to attract and retain good staff.

The supporting role played by domestic helpers here also contributes to the success of women in businesses.

Having help at home means that they are less likely to give up or downscale their careers after they have children.

In other countries childcare is so expensive that it prohibits women from returning to work.

However, although women in Hong Kong may fare better than their counterparts overseas, gender equality in the workplace is not prevalent.

Very senior women are still mostly found in people-based professions such as human resources or sales and marketing, and less in the worlds of banking and finance.

Of course, there were still companies that insist on hiring men only, said Ms McLellan, but their number was decreasing.

Women in Hong Kong also face a struggle to balance home and work that is universal, particularly when children are involved, but this can be especially difficult for successful Chinese businesswomen.

At work, all that matters is that they deliver on the promises that their title dictates, regardless of their sex, but at home they are wives, mothers, daughters and daughters-in-law who must not only fulfil their role as the primary carer for the children, but may face their husband's and extended family's discomfort with their high powered role at work.

Professor Cheung said: 'Men have to feel comfortable having a wife who is so-called superior in social status, be it in income or position.

'It takes a very egalitarian man to accept that.'

For this reason one often found senior businesswomen in Hong Kong who had chosen not to marry and have children, she said, and it was becoming more acceptable to make this choice.

Looking ahead, however, the combination of a more modern approach to marriage, together with an increasing emphasis on work-life balance in the workplace and a move towards more family friendly practices, such as paid maternity leave and time off during

the week to spend with children, will ensure that women will continue to increase their presence in boardrooms in the future.

Feminine Foothold

Number of years before there will be more women than men in Hong Kong's white-collar jobs: 20