Hong Kong inches along the road to gender equality in public life

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 December, 2010, 12:00am

Last month I was invited to the Global Women's Leadership Conference in Seoul. Jointly organised by the Hankook Ilbo Media Group and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, the theme of the two-day conference was 'Empowering women to lead change'.

Although South Korea ranked 22 in global competitiveness, it ranked only 104 out of 134 countries in the World Economic Forum's annual Gender Gap Index. While Hong Kong is not listed in the index, the small number of women in political and economic leadership positions indicates the city also has a long way to go to reach gender equality.

In Hong Kong, much like South Korea, culture and societal mindsets are tenacious, and women are not considered natural leaders, particularly in the political and economic domains.

When I was first elected to the British colonial Legislative Council in 1991, I was the only woman directly elected. Today, almost 20 years later, out of 60 Legco members, only seven women are directly elected. Of the 15 principal government officials, only four are women.

In the corporate world, the situation is equally grim. Men dominate the boards of most big companies. Many Hong Kong people do not want their family members to become involved in public affairs and are even less keen about women playing an active role in politics.

When women decide to go into politics, they are often asked, 'Who will look after the family?' However, the same question is seldom put to men in a similar situation. Society must recognise that it is for its own sake that women should play a bigger role in political and economic life. Equal participation leads to diversity, competition, vibrancy and improved quality of decisions.

Speakers at the Seoul conference emphasised the need for government to adopt family-friendly policies such as lengthy paid maternity leave, paternity leave, flexible working hours and adaptable working arrangements, so that women can look after their young families as well as pursue their own careers.

The Hong Kong government, however, has made little attempt to find solutions. Ten years ago, the government adopted a policy of gender mainstreaming - a tool to assess the implications for women and men of certain actions - to promote gender equality. After a decade, little progress has been made. Many senior government officials are still unaware that gender mainstreaming means putting gender equality at the centre of policymaking.

To encourage more women to participate in public affairs, the Hong Kong government raised the ratio of women in government-appointed boards and committees from 25 per cent to 30 per cent in June. However, there are still 41 committees that do not have even one woman.

In the 18 district councils in which most of the members are directly elected, the government also appoints 102 members to balance the influence of elected members. Yet in eight district councils, no women have been appointed members.

Some government officials told me that they had difficulty finding women to appoint to the boards and committees. I could hardly believe my ears.

The government should send a strong signal to the community that it really wants to involve women in public affairs, and urge them to come forward. In Norway, it was a male minister who initiated legislation requiring boards of publicly listed companies to have at least 40 per cent of women. In order to achieve gender equality, we need the support of men.

For many years, the Democratic Party did not pay sufficient attention to nurturing female political leaders. We cannot just push the government to act on gender equality yet fail to promote the idea within our party. Now, the party is taking the issue seriously. We hope more women will join our party and take a more proactive role. With the support of our party members, we are ready to inject new vigour into this age-old campaign.

Emily Lau Wai-hing is a legislator and vice-chairwoman of the Democratic Party. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues, developed in collaboration with The Women's Foundation