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Perfect balance: How Hong Kong's career women combine work and family life

Hong Kong is ahead of Western countries in allowing women to combine family life with successful careers, writes Liana Cafolla

 

What does it take for a woman to achieve success in Hong Kong's highly competitive work environment? Quite a lot, it transpires. Nevertheless, in a city that is uniquely supportive of helping women advance their careers, it is entirely possible.

It's an environment that can offer rich rewards in terms of both remuneration and career advancement. However, unlike locations where those rewards can come with a heavy price on family life or childcare responsibilities, Hong Kong offers an altogether more guilt-free experience.

One successful woman who has blended the two is Esther Ma Tin-wai, chief executive and founder of public relations agency Prestique. For her, success is about being able to combine her family life with running her own business. By installing a trusted team, the business allows her the flexibility she needs to spend time with her two young daughters.

Living in Hong Kong helped her immensely in starting her business, she says, thanks to its "work hard, play hard" mentality. "With Hong Kong being such an entrepreneurial city, it really helped me in my entrepreneurial spirit," Ma says. "A lot depends on word of mouth, connections and networking. It is such a small city that everyone knows everyone. It's very easy to go around and meet people."

Although hard work is very important, she says it must be balanced with fun. "I think a lot of Hong Kong people work too hard and don't play hard enough. Life is just so much more exciting if you can balance your life."

Combining a family with a career is not easy for women in any country. In many Western countries, physical exhaustion is a permanent facet of life for most working mothers as they try to juggle childcare, housework and the demands of their jobs. Personal time and time alone with their partner are usually a luxury they can only rarely enjoy.

In Hong Kong, women usually work the same long hours as their male counterparts, and flexitime and part-time work opportunities are rare exceptions. On the plus side, however, the easy availability of affordable domestic helpers allows many working women to rely on them to take care of not just their homes but also their children.

In a recent interview, Maseena Ziegler, author of Ladies who Launch in Hong Kong, which profiles the stories of 12 female entrepreneurs, said many successful women cited home help as a major factor in their career success. "As one entrepreneur in the book puts it, you know dinner will be on the table when you get home or that your children will be picked up from school."

In a small city, contacts are critical and networking can make a difference in finding job and promotion opportunities. Many professional women find that formal networking opportunities are dominated by men. Nevertheless, women are increasingly finding alternative ways to expand their networks, such as through informal networking and by joining women-focused groups. The Women's Foundation (TWF) is a charity organisation that aims to improve the lives of women and girls in Hong Kong. TWF runs a high-powered mentoring programme and was instrumental in persuading the government to introduce paternity leave.

TWF has also had considerable success in changing corporate and political practices to help rebalance the low number of women in corporate life. The Hong Kong stock exchange is now considering forcing listed companies to disclose their board diversity policy as a result of lobbying, says TWF chief executive Su-Mei Thompson, who came to the role after a varied career that included stints as a lawyer at Christie's Hong Kong and as managing director for Asia of the Financial Times.

Now a mother of two young girls, she defines success as a combination of her dynamic TWF role and her life as a happy working mother. She has solved the dilemma of balancing work and family life by involving her children in the foundation's work.

"There isn't a hard line between my work and family life. What's nice is that my girls love the fact that I work and I try and engage them as much as possible in what we do at the foundation," Thompson says. "Like many working mums, I end up having to compensate for time spent with the kids on their homework by burning the midnight oil, but luckily I'm very nocturnal and don't need a lot of sleep."

Running TWF involves constant networking, and Thompson, a Singapore-born Malaysian, says being based in Hong Kong has helped her build the organisation. "The access you can get to people, and the way people here go out of their way to help other people, is what makes Hong Kong so special."

Achieving success also means a heavy focus on learning in this education-obsessed city. Many women who command high salaries have not just one but two, or even more, degrees.

A closer look at the background of many of those who make it to the top of their fields, though, shows that the key to success has been about more than a focus on earning as many A-grades as possible. For these women, education has tended to be a broader and more internationally focused learning process that continues even after they have achieved career success.

Hong Kong's high-flying women often share a commitment to lifelong learning, whether through additional formal education, on-the-job training or using life skills to reach their goals. That often goes hand in hand with a mindset that is positive, flexible and open to new ideas. This rounded approach to learning appears to be an essential ingredient in achieving meaningful success.

One successful professional who has benefited professionally from her East-West education is Professor Agnes Tiwari, head of the University of Hong Kong's school of nursing and an expert in the field of interpersonal violence research. A Hong Kong native who lived and studied in Britain for 24 years from the age of 18, she says it's a luxury to have experienced two such different cultures.

While many are quick to reel off differences between the East and the West, Tiwari is convinced that these are overstated.

"We're more similar than different," she says. "Now I can understand British culture and Hong Kong culture. I can combine those two nicely."

Working in Hong Kong is different from working in Britain, she notes, because of Hong Kong's strong work ethic. "I have worked incredibly harder here," she says.

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