Working marriage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 January, 2011, 12:00am

Women's economic empowerment is arguably one of the biggest tectonic shifts of our time. Just a generation ago, women were largely confined to repetitive menial jobs and expected to abandon their careers when they married and had children. Today, they are running some of the world's most successful organisations and are better educated and more prevalent in the workforce than ever before.

However, this revolution has come with a price. Many women feel they have to choose between their children and their careers. In Hong Kong, studies show these pressures adversely affect not only women but also society as a whole.

A recent Women's Commission report found that 68.7 per cent of single women were in paid employment in 2008, compared with only 46.3 per cent of married women. Women cited familial responsibility as the main reason they leave paid work - in particular the need to act as primary caregivers. In another study, 82 per cent of female professionals rated the level of conflict between work and family as 'intense' or 'extremely intense'.

Hong Kong's response to this issue can at times be depressing. For instance, it was disappointing in the wake of the government's recent report on the shortage of doctors in Hong Kong to see factions in the community calling for hospitals to hire fewer women doctors because many of them end up quitting to look after their family. This kind of attitude is troubling, especially if you consider that there are equal numbers of male and female students studying medicine in our universities. Hong Kong needs to find a way to ensure that women - who after all make up half the talent pool - are able to remain productive despite the interruptions of childbirth and they can continue to work without negatively impacting the welfare of their children and their family.

The Women's Foundation believes it is high time for a review of Hong Kong's maternity benefits. Under Hong Kong law, a woman is entitled to 10 weeks of paid maternity leave. New mothers are safeguarded from any unexpected termination of employment during that period and may be granted an additional four weeks of leave should there be any complications involved in childbirth recovery.

Contrast this with Europe, where many countries today offer up to three years of paid maternity leave. Closer to home, Shanghai has recently re-interpreted existing policy to allow for over six months' post-natal leave provided the mother presents a doctor's supporting document.

The decision is not so simple, of course - lengthy periods of paid maternity leave can put firms off hiring women, which would have the reverse effect to the desired outcome. At the same time, the cycle cannot be broken just by expanding the entitlement to maternity leave without a raft of accompanying changes in policy and practice including flexible work arrangements, more options for childcare support and more retraining assistance for women to re-enter the workforce.

These are not novel proposals. The Equal Opportunities Commission has long championed more family-friendly policies including flexible working hours, job-sharing, paternity leave and sponsored childcare. Yet, its recommendations have not been widely adopted. In a 2006 EOC report, only 14 of 137 Hong Kong companies surveyed had these policies in place or guidance for them.

Ultimately, what Hong Kong needs is an attitudinal shift that accepts that men are equal partners in the birth and care of children within the home and endorses women as being equally important actors in the workplace. Increasing incentives for fathers to spend more time caring for their children would be a novel approach to combating the gender biases that relegate women to caregiver roles and discourage men from taking an equal share in domestic affairs.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO of The Women's Foundation. Dr Bianca Jackson and Lisa Moore contributed to this article, which is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues developed in collaboration with The Women's Foundation