Search goes on for role models

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong may take pride in its position as a modern financial centre, but there is always room for improvement. One key area - the role and representation of women - remains high on the agenda. By recognising outstanding achievements and spotlighting inspirational stories, the Women of Influence Awards, organised by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and the South China Morning Post, are continuing to create positive change.

'We still need more role models to show what is possible and inspire younger women to go for careers,' says Ingrun Alsleben, chairwoman of the judging panel. 'Even in Hong Kong, the representation of women in business and politics is not at the level it could or should be.'

The aim of the awards goes beyond acknowledging women who have 'made it' in their field. The judges are also looking for examples of how each nominee has used the influence that comes with success and seniority to contribute to her broader profession and the community at large.

'One of the important criteria is to see what she is doing to mentor and influence others, for example by giving speeches, showing advocacy, or taking part in charity and community activities,' says Alsleben, who is chief financial officer of Bayer Group Hong Kong. 'When the judging panel looks at the community involvement of the nominees there is a preference that the involvement goes beyond being 100 per cent aligned with their own business activities. We have seen past winners that had their own foundation, were working extensively pro bono, or running a women's shelter.'

Noting that friends, colleagues, or perhaps the employer can submit nominations for most categories, Alsleben was impressed this year by the number and quality of candidates. She says this confirms two things. That many inspirational stories remain untold. And that interest in the awards - and their impact - continues to extend beyond the typical professional sphere to touch the wider society.

'That makes it more difficult for the judges, but is a reason for this year's conference theme - connecting, collaborating and inspiring,' she says. 'It is meant to encourage young women to be bold in their ambitions by hearing how speakers pursued their dreams and were able to overcome challenges.'

To be clear, Jennifer Van Dale, co-chair of the AmCham Women of Influence committee, adds that the awards are not about specific issues. The aim is to promote attitudes and examples that are forward-looking and good for business in general.

'Often these women are high achievers and accomplished professionals, but they don't toot their own horn,' says Van Dale, a partner at Baker & McKenzie. 'Recognising their talent not only honours the winners, but also inspires others.'

She notes that the calibre of nominees and demand for seats at the conference show how seriously businesses now take the awards. That also explains why the committee introduced two new categories this year: Champion for the Advancement of Women and Master in Charity, Arts or Culture.

'We wanted to recognise the men who 'get it' and are allies,' Van Dale says. 'And we felt the Entrepreneur category really wasn't broad enough to capture and recognise women who successfully start commercial endeavours, as well as those who achieve so much in the non-profit sector.'

For committee co-chair Lee Georgs, the awards do much more than commend the success of individuals and companies seen to be making a difference. By shining a light on aspects of inclusion, diversity and management policy, they also send a bigger message about best practice and initiatives to local and overseas organisations.

'Businesses are struggling with many of the same issues regardless of their size, location or sector,' Georgs says. 'This is not so much about women, but how various groups relate to one another in the workplace, and that includes men's changing role.'

Many debates still focus on the number of women at board level, she says. That is important but, in her opinion, the more significant factors for women in the workforce are hiring, rehiring and retention. These affect women at all levels, not just the top tier or high-flyers.

The way forward is to create non-linear career paths which allow for flexible work arrangements, career breaks and more tailor-made roles. 'In the end, this will contribute to a more stable and diverse workforce, providing more options to fill board positions,' Georgs says.