Hong Kong universities need to put gender on the agenda

Helene Fung and Su-Mei Thompson say our universities should offer studies that address the need for gender perspectives in social issues

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 October, 2013, 8:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 October, 2013, 4:39pm

Despite having scholars who have distinguished themselves in women's gender and sexuality studies, Hong Kong's universities are glaringly deficient in their support for 21st-century gender studies, as demonstrated by the fact that none of them offer such courses as a full undergraduate degree programme.

Questions about sex and sexuality colour every aspect of our lives. They determine the toys we gravitate towards, the friends we make, the subjects and occupations we choose, the lifestyle decisions we embrace, how we interpret culture, media and history, as well as the policies and services that affect social development. Although gender studies owes its beginning to feminism, it has developed into an interdisciplinary inquiry that embraces voices from different perspectives, both within and beyond the walls of the ivory tower.

World-class gender studies programmes at institutions like Cambridge and Barnard equip students with the knowledge to critically evaluate the complex issues of income inequalities between women and men, the expression of sexuality, the sexual roles men and women play, and more.

Hong Kong currently stands at the crossroads on major social issues, including integration challenges for ethnic minorities, mainland immigrants and sexual minorities, as well as rising incidents of sex discrimination and sexual harassment. To help us chart the path ahead, it is time for our leading universities to introduce undergraduate programmes that afford a broad, critical view of gender issues related to contemporary social life.

At The Women's Foundation, we are particularly concerned about gender inequality in the allocation of resources and the impact this has on the welfare and livelihood of women. A highly visible example is the Mandatory Provident Fund, which has been criticised for ignoring the one million or so women - housewives, part-time workers and older adults - who are ineligible for pension protection.

To determine where gender inequities lie, the government needs to adopt gender responsive mechanisms that measure the difference in impact on men and women and more accurately assess the demographic impact of budget decisions and policy changes. This is currently not happening.

Having a talent pool of graduates trained in gender-based analysis would make a difference. Their expertise would be needed not just in government, civil service and statutory bodies such as the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Women's Commission, but also private companies that care about the management and training of their diverse workforce, and non-governmental organisations offering services in mental and community health, and youth and family service.

If Hong Kong can move quickly to establish a flagship gender studies programme, there are significant opportunities for cross-border collaboration, particularly with the mainland where rising expectations among urban women, the gendered segmentation of the labour market and the gender imbalance stemming from the one-child policy are emerging as key issues for policymakers.

Helene Fung is a professor in the psychology department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Su-Mei Thompson is CEO of The Women's Foundation