International Women's Day

Women's work is not yet done

Carine Lai says the changing profile of women in Hong Kong shows many improvements over the years, but also the pervasiveness of gender bias

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 March, 2013, 3:48am

If you asked a roomful of university students whether gender inequality still exists in Hong Kong, chances are you'll get a resounding "no". Young women today will have experienced little overt discrimination. Yet, as a series of recent reports by Civic Exchange and commissioned by The Women's Foundation shows, gender still matters.

Women have undoubtedly made tremendous progress. The grandmothers of today's students, mostly born in the 1940s, lived in a world where polygyny was legal and the keeping of mui tsai (girl child slaves) had not quite died out.

Even in their mothers' generation, it was not uncommon for girls to forfeit their education in favour of their brothers'. Women in their early 40s were just young enough to benefit from the introduction of free compulsory education in the 1970s, but those born just a few years earlier missed out, with lifelong effects that can be seen in earnings data today.

According to census data, after taking domestic helpers out of the equation, the median monthly wages of men aged 40-49 was 29 per cent more than that for women in that age group in 2011, but the comparable figure for men aged 50-59 was 52 per cent more.

The gender pay gap narrows for workers in their 30s, and disappears completely for workers in their 20s. However, this probably reflects the fact that young people of both sexes are working in entry-level jobs and relatively unhindered by family responsibilities. As they age, gender inequalities will probably resurface. Education and employment data shows that university subject and career choices are still highly gendered, with women concentrated in "caring" occupations such as education, social work, health and personal services.

Gender barriers today are subtle rather than overt. They lie in stereotypes about how men and women should behave, what they are good at and what their roles should be.

Gender biases permeate our assumptions about the world and have repercussions throughout society. For example, we know that 25 per cent of women in their 30s drop out of the workforce after marriage, while men's labour force participation actually increases slightly after marriage.

We also know that Hongkongers are delaying marriage, which now occurs at 28.9 years for women and 31.2 years for men. The 30s are now the prime childbearing years, if people have children at all (our fertility rate is among the lowest in the world at 1.2 children per woman in 2011).

Added together, this paints a picture of a severely family-unfriendly city that has not given any thought to so-called women's work, other than to import foreign labour to do it.

Women are now expected to pursue careers while still shouldering the bulk of household chores and caregiving. This creates a great deal of pressure for women, especially if they lack the means to hire a domestic helper. As the population ages and their parents become more frail, their burden will only grow.

If Hong Kong is going to solve the fertility and ageing problems, we'd better start paying attention to gender.

Carine Lai is project manager of Civic Exchange