Honestly, this gender bias against women in Hong Kong looks bad

Hong Kong constantly strives to demonstrate its internationalism but in reality needs to embrace new social norms

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2016, 12:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2016, 10:44pm

Martin Chavez has just been appointed as Goldman Sachs’ next Chief Financial Officer. He is a Latino who also happens to be gay, is the father of two surrogate born children and has no hesitation in talking about his time attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the 1990s.

None of this seems to be bothering Goldman which is generally regarded as being pretty strait-laced and used to be famous for the extraordinary similarity of its senior managers.

The antediluvian attitudes towards sexual orientation are mirrored in a lingering gender bias that prevents women breaking through the glass ceiling of leading major companies unless they are related to the owners

Yet the bank, based in New York and operating around the world, has embraced the reality of new social norms and makes appointments on the basis of merit (well, okay, it’s almost certainly not that straightforward) and therefore strives to fill its top jobs with the best available talent regardless of sexual orientation, gender or other factors that are not related to their performance or potential.

One of the places Goldman operates is Hong Kong, indeed it is has a large presence here. However if a gay member of Goldman staff seeks to bring his or her husband or wife to live with them in Hong Kong, their application will be turned down by the Immigration Department because it does not recognise trailing same sex spouses.

A court challenge to this rule on behalf of a lesbian couple has proved to be unsuccessful. Goldman, which actively espouses equality in its home base, declined to sign a petition of protest arising from the case.

Meanwhile because the rest of the world is changing so fast, while Hong Kong clings onto a set of Victorian ethics, the government has been forced to make special exceptions for same sex spouses of diplomats based here.

This act of contortion is not however making the administration any less keen to hold the line as it is actively defending itself in a case brought by a local civil servant who has taken the government to court on grounds of discrimination because it refuses to grant his husband’s rights to benefits accorded to the spouses of other civil servants. The marriage took place overseas, as Hong Kong does recognise the legal basis of same sex relationships and even bans overseas consulates from performing same sex marriages or partnership ceremonies, although this is now permitted on the mainland.

Most of the world’s other international business centres have settled issues of this kind without the sky falling in. However in Hong Kong you still have to pinch yourself to realise just how far we lack behind. And just to prove the point a group of bigots, waving the flag of religion, have launched a campaign to castigate HSBC for dressing the iconic lions outside its headquarters in the rainbow colours of the LGBT movement to signify support for a more inclusive attitude.

Apparently these lions pose a serious threat to family values. Figures are not yet in for the number of people who suddenly embraced homosexuality or bi-sexuality after seeing the lions but clearly they have powers that few of us previously observed.

Joking aside, there is a deeper problem here for a place that constantly strives to demonstrate its internationalism and attract business on this basis. The antediluvian attitudes towards sexual orientation are mirrored in a lingering gender bias that prevents women breaking through the glass ceiling of leading major companies unless they are related to the owners. Even Hong Kong’s much maligned political parties have a better record in this respect because every major political party has or has had a female leader. And it’s almost certain that the next Hong Kong Chief Executive will be a woman.

Meanwhile back in gulag business women get to lead corporate PR departments, head up human resources teams but other than that rarely rise to the very top. The waste of talent here is quite extraordinary.

As for people working in large companies who do not confirm to the standard plan of being married and established in heterosexual relationships, well, a dark shadow hangs over their careers because, apparently, something is not quite right about them.

The irony is that public opinion polling evidence (admittedly minimal) shows that most people have a more tolerant attitude to LGBT issues than Hong Kong’s decision makers. However both in the civil service and among the top echelons of the local business community there is an extraordinary level of resistance to bringing Hong Kong into line with the advanced nations of the world.

Legal reform and acceptance of different orientations does nothing to undermine the personal views of those who are resolutely straight but it will ensure that those who do not embrace their views or sexual orientation will not face discrimination and its allows people with different sexual orientations to be valued for who they are, not who they happen go to bed with.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster