Shared role

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 November, 2011, 12:00am


In last month's policy address, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced a pilot scheme to explore whether civil servants should be entitled to five days of paid paternity leave. While the government should be applauded for encouraging more men to play an active role as parents, much more needs to be done if we are to move away from scripted gender roles and empower women to achieve their full potential at work.

Equality in the workplace depends on equality at home. Studies show that, on average, if a woman and a man both work full time and have a child, the woman does twice the amount of housework and provides three times the amount of childcare than the man. Until they have children, women earn nearly the same as men and climb the career ladder at a similar pace. With babies, though, come career breaks and a stressful existence trying to please everyone - colleagues and bosses at work, children and husbands at home.

Until now, the focus of governments and companies has been on how to allow women to have it all - through a plethora of benefits and best practices including maternity leave, flexible working arrangements, and mentoring and women's networks. But, paradoxically, the effect has been to entrench women even more firmly in their role as primary caregivers. It seems that a paradigm shift in thinking is needed - one which eschews the traditional maternity/paternity leave dichotomy for a gender-neutral concept of parental leave. This recognises that the family unit is managed by two parents and that dual-earner and single-parent families are increasingly more prevalent than the traditional model of a male breadwinner.

Recently ranked as the top four nations in closing the gender gap, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden are leading examples of this new paradigm. In Sweden, after the birth of a child, each couple is entitled to 13 months' leave until the child's eighth birthday. With the exception of 60 days tied specifically to each parent, this time can be split in any way a couple wants. In Norway, parents are entitled to 52 weeks of parental leave at 80 per cent of their earnings or 42 weeks at 100 per cent. In both Finland and Sweden, as an additional incentive for mothers and fathers to share the parenting responsibilities, extra leave is given that is solely allowed to be taken by the father, otherwise that time is lost. The overall result is a much higher percentage of women staying in work after marriage and children, with all of these countries having female labour participation rates well over 70 per cent, and Iceland leading at 81 per cent. Contrast this with Hong Kong, where the labour force participation rate for women is 52 per cent, dropping to 45.6 per cent for married women remaining in the workforce.

We need to become a society that supports and celebrates both mothers and fathers as earners and carers, one that prepares boys and girls for a future shared role in caring for children. Schools and parents need to be vigilant about not perpetuating gender stereotypes. The media and advertising industry need to get on side as well. Only in this way can we achieve true equality for men and women.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO of The Women's Foundation. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues in Hong Kong developed in collaboration with The Women's Foundation