Miracle workers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am


Time with the family is a luxury for working mothers like Janet Chong Hey. By the time she gets home at 9pm, her two children are usually asleep. Still, home life has improved in recent months for Chong, DBS' senior vice-president of consumer banking. Since the bank introduced a '5@5' initiative in April, she has been able to leave work at 5pm sharp on Fridays, allowing her to chat with her son and daughter and read them bedtime stories.

It has certainly pepped up their week, Chong says, and the family makes a point of dining together every Friday. 'My children are excited to see me so early at night.'

Working mothers constantly juggle demands from office and home. Lately, this struggle has been less frenetic, as employers begin to recognise the need for a better work-life balance and initiate schemes to help women with children. But there's room for improvement. As women's groups continue to press for more equitable sharing of domestic and work responsibilities, flexitime, childcare facilities and the like are mostly confined to multinational companies with more resources at their disposal.

Like DBS, American Express aims to relieve employees' stress over family duties, introducing flexible work arrangements during exam season when many parents take time out to help with their children's preparation. Staff can work longer days in the weeks leading up to exams to make up for hours lost during exam week.

'We understand the huge importance local parents attach to exams,' says Susanna Lee Kam-yee, Amex's East Asia general manager for global merchant services.

It's one way of retaining valued staff, she says. About 62 per cent of Amex employees at management level or above are women, and working mothers are a part of a treasured team. The fact that 37 per cent of employees have been with the company for more than 10 years reflects a high retention rate, Lee says. Besides, 'Employees who are happy have higher productivity,' she adds.

Similarly, accounting giant KPMG offers employees with families an additional 20 days partly-paid leave - to be taken during its off-peak period from May to December. And those who require more time off may get up to another 20 days of unpaid flexible leave.

Few local companies adopt such family-friendly schemes, however, says Robin Bishop, chief operating officer of Community Business, an NGO promoting work-life balance.

'Hong Kong is built on a hard work ethic,' she says. 'The local culture tends to reward employees for how visible they are as opposed to their output. The more time you are seen to spend in the office, the more committed you are.'

But many Hong Kong employers have yet to realise that introducing flexitime and similar schemes does not necessarily lead to lower productivity, Bishop says. A Community Business survey last year found the culture still entrenched, with full-time employees putting in an average of 48.7 hours a week.

Even so, conditions are improving. Of the 1,009 employees polled, 45.7 per cent enjoyed a five-day week compared to 32.4 per cent in 2006. And 28.3 per cent of them enjoyed flexitime arrangements, compared to 22.4 per cent in 2006. The option of working from home was available to 22.9 per cent, up from 14.1 per cent.

Such welfare initiatives and flexible work arrangements help mothers remain in the workforce, says Lau Yuk-king, an assistant professor at Chinese University's department of social work.

Lau cites a survey of working parents she conducted in 2007 to illustrate the dilemmas that working mothers face. Of 1,553 people polled, 60 per cent believed their jobs adversely affected their children's academic results, social skills and conduct at school.

'When it comes to life priorities, family tends to take precedence over work for a woman. That's why many drop out of the workforce after becoming a mother,' she says.

A 2009 Women's Commission report found that only 46.3 per cent of married women remained in the workforce, compared to 68.9 per cent of women overall.

That may account in part for Hong Kong employers' bias against hiring women with children. According to a recent global study by business space provider Regus, only 32 per cent of local companies were willing to employ mothers, compared with the world average of 36 per cent. The survey found 31 per cent of respondents worldwide were concerned that women returning from maternity leave could not offer the same commitment as other employees.

Still, there is growing recognition that the failure to address these needs is a loss for companies and society. Big banks now run childcare centres, some companies allow sales staff to work from home occasionally, and some provide seminars on topics ranging from parenting to nutrition and financial education for children.

'If companies are considerate and allow flexibility at work, they won't quit,' Lau says. 'Not working is not necessarily a happy thing for mothers.'

But it'll take a radical shift in gender roles to bring balance to the workplace, says Su-Mei Thompson, chief executive of the Women's Foundation.

We may be in the 21st century but women are expected to be the primary caregivers for children and to take care of the household, Thompson says. 'Studies show that [working mothers] do twice the amount of housework and three times the amount of childcare than men. They try to please everyone - colleagues, bosses, children and husbands at home. It's hardly surprising that they are dropping out of the workforce.'

Only a sea change in attitudes towards gender roles can lessen the workplace disparity, Thompson says.

'To even things out outside of the home, we have to make work in the home important for people of both genders,' she says. 'We need a revolution in how we approach parenting responsibilities. Countries and companies should introduce paid paternity leave. Schools need to be vigilant about perpetuating stereotypes. We need to support both mothers and fathers as earners and carers.'

An 11-year veteran at DBS, Chong applauds its supportive working environment. 'After I gave birth to my elder son, Wesley, nine years ago, the company put breastfeeding facilities in place. I breastfed both Wesley and Hailey, now aged five, for 15 months.'

Employees also enjoy one day of pro-family leave in addition to their annual leave, so Chong uses the time to attend her children's sports days, music competitions and, recently, a storybook reading session with teachers from her daughter's kindergarten.

'My participation in their activities will prod them to try harder. We play musical instruments together. Wesley plays cello, Hailey piano. I recently resumed flute lessons, which I stopped 10 years ago.'

At KPMG, a similarly supportive culture has made motherhood easier for Maggie Lee. She joined the accounting firm as a fresh graduate 18 years ago and has since risen to human resources and audit partner.

'I got married and became a mother while working here. My second daughter was born three months ago. When my IPO engagement clashed with my expected delivery date, a colleague covered for me.

'I take pleasure in my work, which is challenging. So I am happy that I can work while still enjoying my family.'

Lee taught her daughter, Tiffany, five, early on to understand the importance of her work. 'They need to know everyone has a role to play. While domestic helpers take care of my daughters, I spend most of my down time with them. I practise piano with Tiffany and we go to the playground together.'

Chong says she trained her children to be independent early on. 'I never help them pack their schoolbags. They have to bear the consequences of forgetting to take their homework to school.'

Early training in independence also helps Bally Wong Lam Chui-ling, founder of ABC Pathways School, maintain her household while running her company which employs 120 staff. The 43-year-old spends her days shuttling between four learning centres around Hong Kong, holding meetings with staff, devising curricula and visiting schools to strike deals with principals. At night she finds time to chat with her three daughters before shooting off replies to work e-mails.

She runs her household like her company. Every family member is assigned duties to make the home run smoothly. 'I oversee [the children's] homework. My husband is in charge of finances. My father-in-law draws up the weekly schedules for my three children and takes them to special-interest classes after school,' she says.

'My oldest daughter Hazel,15, writes cheques to pay the school bills. She even logs into my e-mail account to help me answer parent e-mails sent by their school. I always tell my daughters not to rely on anybody, even me, as I am not to be trusted. They know that I am so busy that I will forget things.'

The children are also expected to wash the dishes and keep the bathroom clean, as well as keep their own affairs in order.

'Local parents are too involved in their children's lives, helping with their homework and blow-drying their hair. I trust my children. Their exams are none of my business. They have to take control of their lives.'

The Pathways school was Wong's first business venture and is her labour of love. 'I gave up a HK$1 million marketing manager job at EF [Education First] to start the company in 2002,' she says. 'I borrowed money from many banks at the beginning to pay rents and salaries. Sars in 2003 affected my business a lot. The company was heavily in the red. Although the worst is over and the business is now going strong, I still suffer from a lot of stress.

'I don't want my work to affect my family. The only way to achieve that is to sacrifice all my personal time. I don't have time to exercise, which has taken a toll on my body. I've suffered from stress-induced eczema for years. Being with my family is the best way for me to unwind now.'