Don't overlook the expat woman

Maggy Lee laments that the talent of women expatriates, including those who come here as accompanying spouses, too often go untapped

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 December, 2013, 11:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 December, 2013, 2:41am

Hong Kong continues to lure large numbers of transnational professionals who live, work and enjoy their leisure in the territory.

As a transient minority, expatriates' experiences and contributions are often ignored or overlooked, particularly those of women who may be joining the Hong Kong community as an accompanying spouse. But understanding what expatriate mothers think about Hong Kong as a place to live and raise a family can enhance the city's standing as a desirable location for business, as well as its social and cultural development.

Over the past two years, we interviewed 40 highly skilled expatriate women who relocated to Hong Kong either as independent professionals or as accompanying spouses. Their length of residence in Hong Kong varies from three months to 30 years. Their stories reflect the changes in the city's colonial history and localisation of the civil service, as well as the restrictions imposed by immigration policies.

All of our participants, regardless of age or length of stay, view Hong Kong as "a land of opportunity" for career progression and self-development.

Many enjoy a sense of safety and freedom and feel able to walk around Hong Kong without fear of harassment or being gawked at. Single women find it easier to break away from the constrictive gender roles and family life they were confined to in their home countries and embrace a new and largely self-defined social role. Most describe their lifestyle in Hong Kong as "liberating".

However, choosing to lead an expat life in Hong Kong comes with trade-offs. Like many local women, some female expatriates have to shoulder the expectation and stress that accompanies having to care from afar for elderly parents often with health problems, made especially harder in the current era of economic austerity.

Some accompanying spouses struggle to maintain their financial independence or to find part-time employment due to visa restrictions and a lack of family-friendly workplace policies in Hong Kong. Additionally, they have to cope with the rising cost of housing and a shortage of English-language school places for their children.

Although local policies tend to focus on the economic contributions of transnational professionals, this does not mean that female expatriates' social contributions should be devalued. Many women in our study actively take part in a range of voluntary work and local residents' committees. Some follow local politics and exercise their right to vote with enthusiasm; others advocate for positive change in social and environmental policies.

Given their high level of education and skills, expatriate women clearly represent an important yet largely untapped resource in Hong Kong that, if harnessed appropriately, could reap benefits for the economy and society at large.

Our challenge is to come up with more systematic efforts and both formal and less formal channels to make sure that they are socially and culturally integrated citizens.

Maggy Lee is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues, developed in collaboration with The Women's Foundation