THE issue of equal opportunities for men and women has implications for the way in which we manage our public and private lives. It means looking afresh at conditions in the home, in the school and in the workplace. It follows that any proposals for change, if they are to succeed and endure, must display a sensitivity to the political and social climate. The first question to ask is: is it right that men and women should participate in society on equal terms? I trust that Hong Kong people would answer a firm ''yes''. The emergence of women from a position of subordination has, in fact, been one of the great social themes of the 20th century, and social norms have shifted accordingly. Although in most households the woman is often left to do most of the domestic labour, men's attitudes are slowly changing. More men now understand that such tasks as child-minding, cleaning, shopping and cooking can - in theory - be done equally well by man or woman, father or mother. That understanding is a starting-point from which, in time, a more equitable form of sharing can, and should, follow. I am not suggesting that all wives and mothers should work, or that those women who prefer to dedicate their time to managing a home and a family are living a less exciting or less rewarding life. What I am arguing is that the choice should be theirs. The defining feature of equality should be that men and women have equal freedom to decide for themselves what they make of their lives. The second question to ask is: should legislation be used to help achieve this objective? The answer must inevitably be more nuanced. Legislation can never in itself be the whole solution, when the real job is one of changing attitudes. The law is one of the two main tools that society uses to regulate itself; the other is custom. The law is usually reserved for areas in which a clear line needs to be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and where the consequences of unacceptable behaviour are likely to be damaging. We are certainly better off managing our affairs without legislation when it comes to matters of individual freedom and private life. We do, however, accept the need for legislation relating to the terms and conditions of work; it is in this area, and specifically in the matter of equal pay, that the case for legislation is most strong. For how, after all, can we talk about equal opportunities for women, if they are in reality being offered the opportunity to do the same work as men but for less money? Over the years, and through their own determined efforts, women have advanced in the labour market, and their relative position is getting better. The case for equal-pay legislation is that it will speed up that trend. It would be wrong to exaggerate what could be achieved even by law in the field of equal pay. Britain, for example, introduced equal-pay legislation in 1970, when a woman's full-time hourly wage rate was, on average, 63 per cent of a man's. By 1992, the figure had risen to 79 per cent. Full equality is obviously years away yet. It would be even more wrong, however, to say that, based on overseas experience, equal-pay legislation does not work at all. True, it has not removed inequality but, equally, we do not suggest that laws against murder or theft are without value merely because acts of murder and theft continue to occur. The question is: does the law make things better than they would otherwise be? Obviously, it does. Employers who yield only reluctantly to equal-pay legislation are at least yielding more than they would in the face of purely moral pressure. Equal-pay legislation also influences the behaviour of working women. It supports and encourages their aspiration to equal pay, and gives them the recourse which they need in order to challenge an employer. Hong Kong has an admirable entrepreneurial economy, which thrives on the minimum of necessary regulation. As the Government's Green Paper on Equal Opportunities points out, the sudden imposition of a statutory equal-pay regime might well place a heavy burden on the many firms here which employ fewer than 10 people - 84.8 per cent of registered businesses. I believe that equal-pay legislation is justified for Hong Kong, but I also acknowledge that some compromise may be needed which recognises the realities of small businesses. I believe a compromise is possible which makes use of those market forces on which the Hong Kong economy has always thrived. I suggest that equal-pay legislation apply, in the first instance, to larger companies: say, the 15.2 per cent of businesses which employ more than 10 people. If those companies were obliged to pay women and men equally, then market forces would encourage smaller companies to follow suit, otherwise they would lose their best female workers to the larger companies. I focus particularly on equal pay as the key to equal opportunity, because I believe that other benefits would flow from it. Employers who were obliged to pay men and women equally would come to take a more unprejudiced view of skills. They would be lessinclined to consign women to ''low-paid'', low-skilled jobs, and more inclined to hire and promote on merit alone. Christine Loh Kung-wai is an appointed member of Legco.