Reaching for the top

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am


Gone are the days when minimally skilled female workers toiled in a factory, day-in day-out, only to receive a meagre salary and face bleak prospects.

With wider educational opportunities since the 1970s, more women in Hong Kong have joined the workforce, and are now contending for top jobs and assuming leadership roles, locally and internationally.

There was joy in the city when Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun took the helm of the World Health Organisation, and delight as Laura Cha Shih May-lung became the first person outside the mainland to join the central government at vice-ministerial rank. Hongkongers also take pride in Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the city's first Chinese chief secretary, and in Margaret Leung Ko May-yee, who now calls the shots at Hang Seng Bank.

The significance of women receiving a decent education and entering the workforce lies beyond the support they can thereafter provide to the household or their contribution to the economy.

For the individual, this signals an unprecedented opportunity to discover and develop their talent, and decide what they want to do and how they will go about doing it. It is a triumph for individual freedom.

The introduction of the nine-year free education policy in 1978 was a turning point in improving the socio-economic status of women, says Susanne Choi Yuk-ping, associate professor at the department of sociology and director of the Gender Research Centre at Chinese University.

Benefiting from the new initiative, Choi says women joined the workforce in large numbers in the late 1980s and 1990s, taking advantage of opportunities created by Hong Kong's shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-oriented one. 'Women in Hong Kong have come a long way in the past few decades, which is an achievement of our society. We should be proud of it,' Choi says. A statistic released by the Census and Statistics Department in July revealed that the number of women in the labour force has increased from 986,000 in the mid-1980s to more than 1.7 million last year, a leap of nearly 74 per cent.

Regionally, Hong Kong places third for representation of women in the total workforce, only lagging behind the mainland and Malaysia, according to a survey conducted this year by Community Business, a non-profit think tank in Hong Kong. The survey covered the mainland, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and India.

However, there are still a few hurdles to overcome. Issues pertinent to women in this day and age are no longer simply concerned with access to education or the job market. Rather, they revolve around parity with men in various aspects, ranging from the type of work and pay for the same job, to the role of men and women in the household.

Government statistics in July show that a higher proportion of men are employed as managers, administrators and professionals, and a larger percentage of women are in clerical and elementary jobs that offer lower salaries.

Figures from the Women's Foundation, a non-profit think tank in Hong Kong, also show gender discrepancy in types of job, with women comprising just 18 per cent of legislators, 29 per cent of managers, 5 per cent of doctors of consultant rank and 9 per cent of university professors.

Meanwhile, a 2009 study by Community Business revealed that there were no women on the boards of 33 per cent of the 42 leading companies listed on the Hang Seng Index. The report also stated that of the 585 people holding directorate level positions in Hong Kong in 2009, a mere 52, or 9 per cent, were women. Choi says that in the boardroom, it's a case of musical chairs.

'Women are relatively latecomers where senior positions have been traditionally taken by men,' she says. 'The 'men's club' subculture and the network bonding between men when making business deals are difficult barriers for women to break through.'

Lam Woon-kwong, chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), thinks the government needs to legislate for women to be accepted on an equal footing in the boardroom.

'The percentage of women in corporate boardrooms in Hong Kong is totally disproportionate to the ratio of women in the top talent pool here. The invisible 'glass ceiling' is obviously at work,' he says.

'Unless the government goes for affirmative action by legislation, there is a limit on how much the boardroom's composition can be influenced.'

A spokesman for the Labour and Welfare Bureau says the Women's Commission has recently written to Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, urging it to consider introducing a new recommended best practice for 25 per cent of corporate boards of public listed companies to be made up of women.

However, Mike Wong Ming-wai, CEO of the Chamber of Hong Kong Listed Companies, says company directorships should be awarded on merit.

'Affirmative action is suitable only when there is blatant discrimination. That women in Hong Kong enjoy a high status is beyond dispute. As such, there isn't a strong enough pretext for legislation,' he says.

Su-Mei Thompson, CEO of the Women's Foundation, cites the need for more family-friendly policies and practices in the workplace, and for more women to come forward and insist on the enforcement of their legal rights and protections.

More mentoring, networking and support programmes for working women are needed, she adds.

Employers should be mindful of the waste of talent and missed business opportunities by stereotyping and preventing female employees from contributing their best, Lam says. The government should also invest in childcare support and paternity leave, he adds. 'They should set the example by being the role model in pioneering gender mainstreaming and gender budgeting policies,' Lam says.

According to the Labour and Welfare Bureau spokesman, the government and the Women's Commission have implemented gender mainstreaming since 2002 to help with the incorporation of women's needs and perspectives into the formulation of policy and legislative proposals. The Labour Department is also keeping an open mind on the introduction of statutory paternity leave.

Several factors will have to be considered in deliberating whether to have paternity leave legislated, the spokesman says, such as whether it should be given in circumstances of childbirths outside marriage and those outside Hong Kong, and the criteria in determining an employee's eligibility for paternity leave. A study on the subject has been launched. Thompson notes that while women need government and business support to close the gender gap in the workplace, creating a level playing field requires strong support from all sectors of society.

'We [will] see the gender gap closing only if we address barriers [such as] stereotyping and rigid gender modelling in education and in the family,' she says.

As far as Lam is concerned, unless and until men lower their biases, many able women's talents will remain wasted. The way forward lies in education, he says, which must start early in life.

The EOC runs programmes in schools that advocate gender equality, and has worked to incorporate gender mainstreaming into all public school curriculum and textbooks, Lam says. It has also stepped up initiatives to raise awareness in public.

'Genuine respect for the abilities and status of women at home and in society must come from the heart and mind, not merely as 'politically correct' lip service,' Lam says.