The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women requires the state to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in political and public life. In particular, women should be accorded, on equal terms with men, the right to vote in all elections and to participate in the formulation of government policy.
In Hong Kong, women have equal standing with men in legislative and district council elections. Some, however, consider the current functional constituencies of the legislature and the chief executive election committee to be structurally biased against women, who are under-represented in corporate voting in 'business' sectors. In the civil service, women now constitute 54.2 per cent of the elite Administrative Service. Thirty per cent of directorate-level officials are women. For advisory and statutory bodies, the government sets a minimum benchmark of 25 per cent for either sex.
Though there is no constitutional or overt institutional discrimination against women in political life, some might still fault it for being 'gender blind'. Indeed, the dominant culture in Hong Kong is one of meritocracy; the 'best' person will be appointed, promoted or elected to the job, irrespective of gender. At a women's political participation summit held at the Baptist University on April 19, many challenged the appearances and statistics.
It is often argued that equality in right is not the same as equality in opportunity. Implicit and hidden discrimination exist, which hinder women from active participation in political and public life. Situational factors - like the conflict with family obligations, and access to education and employment - as well as gender-role stereotypes and cultural tradition, are commonly cited barriers.
It all boils down to changing society's attitudes. Somewhat ironically, though, despite the talk about a lack of female participation in politics, many women activists seem more interested in the struggle against discrimination and suppression as a social movement than taking part in formal politics such as elections and joining political parties.
One has to be clear what 'women's politics' means. If it is equated to proportional representation, simply setting a quota system of some kind would seem a sufficient answer.
Quotas are, however, controversial, although several countries, developed and developing (ranging from France and Sweden to Argentina and South Africa), have recently introduced an electoral gender quota system. This may conflict with democratic politics, as it goes against the issue of competence, and full voter choice. In Hong Kong, even pro-democracy politicians are sceptical of a quota system, and political parties do not adopt any quota for women candidates.
We have to face some harder questions. Do voters want more women in political office? Do women voters prefer to be represented by their own gender in high political office? In last year's district council elections, for example, less than 20 per cent of those elected were women.
Do women activists (non-governmental organisations and social movement campaigners) take participation in political office seriously, or would they prefer to stay outside the political establishment and campaign on gender issues? Many have assumed that mainstream politics is male-dominated or largely defined by male values, and that women entering politics have to adjust to such values to get elected and operate effectively. If so, the logic goes, they have to be more 'male' than men.
This may be a pessimistic or fatalistic view. Still, gender representation and gender politics are two different notions. While it is necessary to encourage more women to participate, are their voices only significant politically if public policies and public administration are different with a woman's perspective in decision-making? At the end of the day, 'gender mainstreaming' in political and public life is more critical than counting heads to keep to a prescribed ratio. This calls for an ideological shift that involves micropolitics beyond constitutional or legislative means.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank