While there are slightly more women studying at Hong Kong universities than men, they are far outnumbered among those attending executive master of business administration (EMBA) courses.
Only a quarter of EMBA students in Hong Kong are female, compared with about 54 per cent of undergraduate students, according to Janet De Silva, dean of Ivey Asia. She said the situation was similar in other advanced markets.
The Ivey Business School EMBA course starting next Saturday will use case studies so that students, mostly mid-level company executives, can learn from real business examples.
De Silva said the scenario reflected the fact that fewer women were aiming at leading roles in business, because EMBA classes were usually seen as a way to groom those wanting to become senior company executives.
She took the EMBA course in Canada in 1996 to help her break through the glass ceiling.
Born and raised in Canada, De Silva is now based in Hong Kong with her husband and 11-year old son.
Before becoming head of the Hong Kong and mainland operations of Canadian-headquartered Ivey Business School in 2010, she worked for a private equity fund. Before that she was chief executive of Canadian Sun Life Financial's Hong Kong operation from 2001 and then spent two years from 2005 as head of its mainland joint venture, Sun Life Everbright, expanding its operations in 15 cities.
At the university's Wan Chai campus, De Silva shared her views on how academic study can help one climb the corporate ladder and her own experience of women in senior workplace roles.
Do you think academics can help to make a change and have more women become business leaders?
I think so. My personal experience in the EMBA course is that it could help me to enhance my experience and strengthen my confidence to take on a bigger job. It helps one to position yourself to face the opportunities and challenges in your career.
Why are there fewer women taking the EMBA than men?
Globally, only about 25 to 27 per cent of attendants at the EMBA course are women. When I attended my EMBA class in 1996, there were only six women out of 38 people in total. This showed fewer women were preparing to take on senior roles as the EMBA course grooms people to prepare them for senior executive roles.
This may be related to the fact that women have more pressure to take care of their family duties while some women simply do not want to take on a senior role. The Women's Foundation has offered three sponsorships every year for females who can get a 30 per cent discount on tuition fees for the EMBA course at Ivey Business School. This is intended to encourage more women to take on senior roles in their company.
As a former female CEO of Sun Life Hong Kong, what do you think is the key to success for female executives to break the glass ceiling?
At the end of the day, there is no difference between men or women for them to be able to be successful in their career. The key to success is the same: that you need to be good at your job. As such, women who want to get to the top would need to be willing to take on tough assignments and need to be prepared to spend time and effort for their work.
When I was CEO of the mainland joint venture, I needed to be based in Tianjin and my husband and my son, who was three years old then, were based in Beijing. I could only meet them during the weekend; and every Sunday, when I packed my suitcase to go back to Tianjin, my son wanted to go with me. It was not easy to leave your son and husband but that was my job. I need to thank my husband's support for me being able to do the job.
There were also advantages in being a female CEO though, because I was the only female CEO among the Sino-foreign joint ventures so many other insurance executives and regulators were willing to meet me as they found me to be special.
Why did you leave the insurance industry and join academia?
When my son grew older, I felt it was time for me to spend more time with him. In 2007 I quit the insurer to join a private equity group which helped retail brands open on the mainland. Then when the dean of this school retired, they offered me this job in 2010. Overall, the change of career allowed me to have more time with my family, which is what I want as I would like to have a balance of life between my work and my family.
Do you think the HKEx's new requirement from September for all listed companies to have a diverse board composition will help more women get on to boards?
This is encouraging as it helps create awareness of the issue. But there are executive search firms which support the idea of having more women on boards, reflecting that there are not enough qualified women in the pipeline. This is why I think it is important to have the EMBA programme in place to help bring in more women to do the top jobs in the corporate world.
Do you think Hong Kong should follow Norway and Malaysia and introduce quotas for women on boards?
Although I support board diversity, I am not a big fan of quotas. I myself do not want to be appointed as a director or to any senior role just because I am a woman. I'd want to get the role because I am the best candidate.
Are there real benefits for companies to have more women on boards?
There are benefits to having more women on boards as they can reflect the views of female consumers who are important clients for many fashion, retail and other deluxe brands. We do not only want women but companies should have people with different backgrounds on boards. For example, now General Motors is selling a lot of cars on the mainland so it makes sense for it to have people with China knowledge. The mobile phone companies such as Apple should have women on board as they have a lot of female customers. Having a diversified board composition can help the companies have products and policies that are more customer friendly.