Call for more women on board of Hong Kong stock exchange

Hong Kong's stock exchange should take the lead by appointing more women to its board

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2012, 7:13am

The Hong Kong stock market may be a leader in many respects but it has responded slowly in pushing for gender equity. It is therefore not a surprise that the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing board itself is an all-boys club.

The 13 directors at the exchange are all men, including chief executive Charles Li Xiaojia as well as the six directors elected by shareholders and six appointed by the government.

Laura Cha Shih May-lung was appointed by the government as director but stepped down in April. Previously Christine Loh was a director elected by shareholders.

HKEx is among the 612 companies in Hong Kong with an all-male board. This represents 40 per cent of a total of 1,518 listed companies in Hong Kong.

Ironically perhaps, the exchange issued a consultation paper last week suggesting that boards be more diverse. Hong Kong is very slow in terms of international standards. Many northern European countries such as Norway as long ago as 2004 introduced laws requiring companies to set a target of 40 per cent of women on boards. Similar laws have been introduced in recent years in many other European countries.

Even Britain, the US and Australia, which do not have laws mandating quotas for women directors, at least require companies to have policies that aim for a diverse board composition in terms of gender, age and cultural background.

HKEx has been slow to catch up but at least it is taking the first step. The government should really be the one responsible for breaking the "glass ceiling", because it can determine on its own appointees to the HKEx board. The HKEx has introduced quarterly reporting and many other corporate governance measures so it is important it set a model for other companies.

The HKEx consultation paper shows a serious imbalance in the number of women represented on boards. Besides 40 per cent of companies having no female directors, 37 per cent only have one woman director. Sixteen per cent had two female directors, 4 per cent had three and 2 per cent had four. Only seven companies, or 0.5 per cent, had five female directors.

As Hong Kong is a city with more women than men - official figures last year showed 3.77 million of the former versus 3.30 million of the latter - the ratio for female directors is very low.

A Credit Suisse Research Institute report showed companies with at least one woman on their board achieved a 4 per cent higher average return on equity while companies with more female directors do better in difficult times.

It is time for Hong Kong companies to catch up - and the HKEx should be taking the lead.