Pump up the pressure

Women can do as well as men in their careers - they just have to be confident and advocate, writes Tiffany Ap

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 11:22pm

Bobbi Campbell wakes up at about 5:30am every morning. She starts preparing breakfast for her two young children, a boy, 2, and a seven-month-old girl. She reads and spends a little play time with them.

At 7:30am, her domestic helper comes on duty which allows her to get herself ready for the day. She leaves for her office in Sheung Wan just after 8am. Campbell works until 5:30pm, whereupon she leaves the office for the drive home. She needs to get back by 6pm, in time to bathe her children, read to them some more, and have dinner together. After seeing her children to bed at 7:30pm, she gets back on the computer and will spend anywhere from an hour to three hours doing work.

It's an exhausting schedule but many professional women like Campbell are juggling demanding roles between the workplace and home. Campbell is the chief operating officer of consultancy and compliance firm Red Flag Group and previously headed up the legal team for Disney Asia Pacific. She has an understanding workplace that allows her flexibility for where and when she works - an arrangement largely made possible because of her seniority. She has a supportive husband with whom she equally splits child-rearing responsibilities. But, because he is a Cathay Pacific Airways pilot and often away from Hong Kong, Campbell says she does sometimes feel like a single mother.

It's a hard slog to the top of the career ladder for women and it doesn't seem to get any easier once you're there. Most women never reach leadership positions.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, a woman who famously leaves the office at 5:30pm, addresses this in her much discussed book Lean In. In Sandberg's opinion, the women's movement, which made huge strides in the 1970s and 1980s, stalled in the new millennium.

However, the lack of women in the top tier of business and government is certainly not for lack of talent. "In Hong Kong, we have outstanding women politicians. Women are just as well suited to political leadership as men in terms of talent," says Christine Loh Kung-wai, Hong Kong undersecretary for the environment.

Hong Kong is home to many successful women. Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, former director of Home Affairs Shelley Lee Lai-kuen, World Health Organisation director general Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor are just some of the high-profile names that come to mind.

Nevertheless, global business culture remains male dominated. According to Sandberg's book, 96 per cent of the world's Fortune 500 companies are headed by men. One rung down at the executive officer level, men occupy 86 per cent of positions and take up 83 per cent of board seats. Meanwhile in Hong Kong, women make up about 11 per cent of directors of listed companies, a percentage that has not improved over the last five years. This compares to 15 per cent in the UK and 16 per cent in the US, according to data from Catalyst, an American think tank. Forty per cent of Hong Kong issuers have no female directors on their boards, according to Catalyst.

Inequality at the senior corporate level could even reflect a deeply ingrained cultural bias.

Elspeth Renshaw, an executive coach with over 20 years' experience, says success and likability are positively correlated for men while negatively correlated for women.

"Men and women are held to different standards. Organisational cultures often send a very subtle underlying message: 'you won't be liked if you succeed,'" she says. Katy Chandler worked for six years in corporate marketing at Morgan Stanley and at times found herself struggling in the male-dominated banking culture. "If you ask my friends and family, I'm not someone who is shy but in a room full of guys I often would hesitate where I wouldn't normally hesitate in my private life. When I did speak up and assert myself, I was conscious of coming across as an aggressive bitch. I think it's that fear of how others perceive you because so many of these strong women do get given that label." Chandler left Morgan Stanley in 2010 to start a fashion e-commerce site, Upper Street, which allows customers to design their own shoes.

The business, founded in partnership with her sister, was initially well received. Still, looking back she believes they had launched the company with modest growth targets, which may reveal the tendency for women to aim lower than men. A stronger sense of direction began to emerge after they got involved with Astia, an organisation devoted to helping women-led businesses.

"Even though we got a good reception from the press, we ran the business without massive ambition. We were sort of just ticking along. But we got involved with Astia and got assigned a series of different mentors who said to us, 'Look, you've got a great business here. Go for it, girls! Don't just sit back!'

Christina Ma, a managing director in the securities division at Goldman Sachs, says women are more prone to doubt their abilities when handed a new assignment.

"If women get a promotion, the first reaction tends to be 'Am I good enough? I'm not sure I have the right skill set to do that,'" Ma says.

While there are structural barriers in the corporate world, women can benefit by altering their own behaviour, beginning with how they network.

Begin by adopting a more transactional approach to relationships, according to Renshaw.

She recommends spending a few minutes to map out who you want to meet, what you might say, and what impressions you might leave.

The technique can be useful overcoming the tendency of some women towards "rock-piling": making a beeline for the one or two other women they know at a function.

"When men have an opportunity to meet someone who could be helpful, they will plan to meet those people and find a way to be introduced," Renshaw says. "Before they go to an event, they'll decide their goal is to talk to these three people and then go do it."

Another common complaint from women is they feel excluded from men's conversations, whether it is chatter about sports, politics, or technology. However, Renshaw says that barrier, too, can be overcome by reading up on current affairs. "It doesn't take very much to have some conversational responses ready. It's cocktail party talk but women feel that they don't know enough about those things," Renshaw says. She adds that it's not necessary to have exhaustive knowledge of a topic. "It's having some knowledge that allows you to enter the conversation," Renshaw says.

Renshaw says behavioural changes such as standing straight at meetings or standing while on important phone calls, a technique that puts more authority in one's voice, can go a long way in how a woman is perceived.

Mentorship can also benefit one's career trajectory. Campbell of Red Flag recommends putting in an effort to make allies or solicit the support of individuals who can act as advocates. "Someone within your company who is going to stand for you at the table and say, 'Yeah, give her a chance.'"

This doesn't necessarily mean the advocate has to be a woman. Ma of Goldman Sachs has had mostly male mentors because of the lack of senior-level women among the ranks of traders.

She says getting men to support her has been positive. "Men start to understand more of the challenges that we as women face. We need them as allies not somebody that you fight against." Ma now acts as a mentor for others.

"My analogy is if you're climbing up a mountain, you're not blocking anybody but do you remember to turn around and extend that helping hand? Sometimes women are very focused and worried about their progress so they don't extend themselves as much as they could," she says.

Ma also presses her subordinates - male and female - to mentor junior women.

But to help combat the tendency for women to get sidetracked from their careers once they hit the age of 30 - around the time many marry and start a family - a structural change is needed.

For the most part, full-time domestic help is beyond the reach of low-income households.

It can also be prohibitively expensive to place a child in community daycare, which leaves few options apart from extended families for childcare support.

"Anyone below a certain [income] threshold is going to suffer and there isn't much of a government-developed childcare system here," Chandler says.

Meanwhile, the labour ordinance allows only 10 weeks of maternity leave, compared to 18 weeks entitlement in Canada and 16 months' leave in Sweden. Hong Kong fathers are entitled to three days leave.

Both Chandler's and Campbell's husbands were given one week of paternity leave, more generous than the government requires, but still a token in the context of the commitment of child rearing.

"If you were in a relationship where the woman is the breadwinner and she is the person who should be pushed forward in their career, that's not possible in Hong Kong. It discriminates against the men and also holds the women back." Chandler says.

Ultimately, women should be able to take their foot off the pedal whether it is to have kids, travel, or compete in a triathlon - it's important for women to be more understanding of each other.

"What's right for someone is not right for everyone," says Claire Fenner, founder of Heels and Deals an entrepreneur network for women. "We should be more accepting to how each woman gets their work and family life to fit. Work life balance is different for everybody."

Still, the best catalyst for change may lie with promotion of women role models.

"At the end of the day, what I've seen to be most effective about creating a critical mass is having other women there," says Ma of Goldman Sachs. "If you see six examples of women managing directors that are successful - some with kids, some without, some married, some not - it gives you diversity and gives you a way to visualise yourself … The most important thing is creating that group that [women] can aspire to."