Status symbol

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am


As we mark International Women's Day and consider what progress has been made on the status of women in Hong Kong, the best that can be said, unfortunately, is that the picture is confounding and contradictory. At worst, stagnation and setbacks seem to be the order of the day.

First, Hong Kong's primary and secondary schools have even numbers of female and male students, with girls pulling ahead at university and outperforming boys in many subjects. What is frustrating is that the improvement in educational opportunities for women has not translated into economic outcomes. The labour force participation rate for women here is lower than that of other developed economies, especially for married and less educated women. Even for more educated women, enhanced educational credentials are not translating into senior positions.

In government, politics and business, the corridors of power are dominated by men. Men hold 82per cent of the seats in the Legislative Council, make up 83per cent of the judiciary and comprise 68per cent of the top-ranked civil servants. In academia, women occupy only 14per cent of senior positions, with not one female university chancellor. The gender gap is even wider in the boardroom and the executive suite.

Gender inequalities are also manifest in many other areas, often with tragic consequences. When it comes to low-income families, women are particularly vulnerable - especially marginalised groups like new migrants from the mainland, the elderly and single mothers: over 80per cent of workers earning less than HK$5,000 per month are female; 84per cent of single mothers live below the poverty line; and more than 100,000 elderly women received Comprehensive Social Security Assistance in 2010, with that number set to rise sharply in future as women continue to outlive men.

So, why is progress so stagnant?

The inadequacies of the social welfare system in Hong Kong have been well documented on this page. The answer, in part, also lies with the fact that we are not doing enough to raise our girls to be leaders.

The rise in recreational drug abuse rates and body-image-related illnesses reflects gaping holes in the education system and parental support. Persistent gender biases in the classroom and at home, and a highly sexist local media and advertising industry, discourage girls from assuming non-traditional roles and increase the pressure on young women to focus on externalities instead of authentic definitions of self-worth.

Equally, we are not doing a good enough job to teach our boys about gender norms and to perceive women as equal counterparts.

A recent study shows that women who earn substantively more that their working husbands are more vulnerable to violence because they pose a challenge to traditional gender roles. In the face of a global economic recession, health hazards and natural disasters, we need to groom both our boys and girls to achieve their full potential. Progress for women should not be a question of hope. The time of praying for change is over. We must act.

Su-Mei Thompson is chief executive of The Women's Foundation. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues, developed in collaboration with the foundation