A good start in getting more women on board

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 June, 2010, 12:00am

In the 1980s, Norway required that 40 per cent of public committee members should be female. It passed a law in the past decade requiring women to make up 40 per cent of directors of big listed companies.

Starting this month, the Hong Kong government is setting a similar target: 30 per cent of members of public-sector boards, advisory committees and other bodies are to be women. Many bodies, like the Hospital Authority, the Broadcasting Authority and, of course, the Women's Commission, already exceed that level. But some fall far short. According to their websites, the Airport Authority's board manages just 6 per cent and City University's council has 13 per cent.

I serve on several public-sector bodies, and know the government is serious about boosting the number of women on them.

The talent is out there. Some public bodies might require specialist technical expertise, while others might call for general professional skills. Yet others might require personal experience or interest. But none of this should disadvantage women. Take a look at the number of successful women in law, accounting, medicine, academia, the highest ranks in the civil service and in corporate Hong Kong, and you can see the amount of talent here.

However, there are several hurdles. One is that you have to find people who want to serve. I have found that women are, in general, more reluctant than men to accept an invitation to sit on a public body, partly because of family duties.

Incidentally, age is also an issue. I have found that scheduling meetings for an advisory body during the working day causes problems for younger people who are working their way up the career ladder. On the other hand, evening and weekend meetings tend to be unpopular among older people with families.

Women already make up more than 30 per cent of many public bodies, so it should be possible to make sure this is the case for them all. It is a question of making the effort to find suitable candidates.

Will we see more women on companies' boards?

The boards of the two companies of which I am president are 13 per cent and 28.5 per cent female. This compares with 8.9 per cent in Hang Seng Index companies, 11.7 per cent in Britain and 14.5 per cent in the United States.

My companies have never sought to attract directors of either gender in particular. It just turned out that most of them are men. And that, of course, is the reason governments like Norway's turn to affirmative action: otherwise, it will repeatedly 'turn out' that men predominate.

While writing this column, I got a call from a contact involved in corporate social responsibility. She talked about issues relating to 'LGBT', which stands for 'lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender'. Making workplaces LGBT-friendly may seem a long way off, but it is a growing concern given the trend towards inclusion. Soon, the government and companies will have to address such issues.

Meanwhile, we have only just started to look at getting more women to sit on public bodies.

This is not just about equality as an end in itself. The community devotes resources to educating girls as well as boys; female students outnumber male students in some university classes. Working harder to get more women into public service simply makes sense: it would be a waste not to do so.

We need to be pushed to work towards inclusion. As with the move to a five-day working week, things can change if the government takes a lead. The private sector may not be under immediate pressure to include more women on its boards. But the government can lead by example.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils


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