THE ADVANCE OF WOMEN in higher education has been unstoppable over recent years in Hong Kong as in many western countries but success in the business world has proved much more elusive. The percentage of women on undergraduate programmes in Hong Kong has been rising steadily for the past 15 years while their share of postgraduate places has risen sharply since the handover. In 2005-06, 53.4 per cent of undergraduates and 55.6 per cent of postgraduate students on taught programmes were women, although men maintained their lead in research degrees, taking 57.7 per cent of places. The proportion of women on degrees with managerial or professional relevance is even greater. Last year, they held 61.5 per cent of places on business and management programmes, 63.5 per cent in medicine, dentistry and health and 72.7 per cent in education. Hard-working female graduate trainees are even getting ahead in male bastions such as engineering, bringing with them an optimism that could bring change to the workplace in future. Cathleen Chan Fung-chi, a trainee environmental engineer with water management firm Metcalf and Eddy, said: 'Physically and technically, women are not that different from men. 'With our hard work and good communication skills, we have just as good a chance of getting to the top as men. Our society is getting more and more open.' Yet despite achieving critical mass in higher education, the bulk of working women in Hong Kong today still hold relatively lowly positions such as clerks, sales assistants and elementary occupations. Among managers and administrators, just 26.8 per cent were women last year and among professionals, 33.8 per cent, according to figures from the Census and Statistics Department. At the very top of the corporate ladder - in the boardroom, directorships and chief executive posts - it is tough for women wherever you are in the world. Carlye Tsui Wai-ling, chief executive of the Hong Kong Institute of Directors, said that in Hong Kong 'probably only 5 per cent of the chief executive officers and chairmen are women [today]'. Following an appointment last month, there are now three female chief executives among FTSE 100 companies in the UK, yet the number of women executive directors last year fell from 20 to 12. In the US, the 2005 Catalyst Census showed women held 14.7 per cent of board seats of Fortune 500 companies - America's richest firms - a rise of 0.5 per cent a year on average over the past decade. Catalyst president Ilene Lang said: 'If we continue at this pace, it could take 70 years for women to reach parity with men on corporate boards.' The career progression issue is reflected in the admissions to Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's high-ranking business school. Women now account for about 60 per cent of students on its full-time Master of Business Administration programme, typically taken by 20-something graduates within a few years of starting work. But tellingly, on its Executive MBA - which admits rising managerial stars in their mid-30s - they account for only about 30 per cent. MBA programme director Steve Dekrey said: 'In terms of world numbers that is strong. Schools are not the stumbling block here because we are willing to take women. It is the momentum that the career paths provide and the lifestyles the women choose.' The Women of Influence awards run by the American Chamber of Commerce help to promote awareness of women's abilities and positive models of equal opportunities in recruitment, promotion and other staffing policies. But despite such initiatives and the presence of a handful of high-profile women leaders in Hong Kong, Sophia Kao Ching-chi, chairwoman of the government-appointed Women's Commission, insists that female managers still face significant barriers to promotion. 'Whether you like it or not, the glass ceiling does exist,' she said. 'There is a recent survey that indicates that at the board level, only 6 per cent of board members in Hong Kong businesses are women. It's very much still an old boy's club and it's very difficult to break in.' Equal opportunities groups are even identifying new barriers to women's progress in the corporate world. The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission has now identified 'glass walls' that hold women within certain departments and 'sticky floors' that prevent them leaving entry-level jobs. The Women's Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission ran a campaign this year calling for employers to adopt family-friendly working practices and tackle Hong Kong's culture of long working hours that could be a deterrent to women's aspirations. The government took the lead in July by introducing a five-day week in the civil service and prominent business leaders went on to back the call for urgent implementation of work-life balance. Yet a survey published last month by Community Business found 75 per cent of employees were working more than the standard 40 hours set down by the International Labour Organisation and 60 per cent of businesses had no plans to follow the government's example. Ms Kao praised HSBC, which was recently elected as one of the top 100 companies worldwide for family-friendly policies, but said many firms needed to go much further. The commission was encouraging employers to adopt three types of policy: flexible working practices, such as flexitime and job-sharing, better maternity and paternity leave and innovative projects to promote work life-balance, she said. Projects recently introduced by Hong Kong firms included a 'concierge service' that provides shopping and laundry for busy staff and family days where staff are ordered to go home at 5pm. Caroline Wang Chia-ling, IBM's vice-president in charge of marketing in Asia, currently on leave as a business school lecturer, said: 'Women need more than paper qualifications to get ahead. We need to be at least as good as men in terms of what we deliver in the job. 'And to survive in the professional world, women need to master the balance between being assertive in your position and being courteous in your style and how you pursue your position. 'This is a key skill that Asian women need to develop to progress their careers. We tend to think that it is a virtue to keep the harmony and even sacrifice or compromise your position in order to have a harmonious relationship. Yet that can often be viewed as a weakness in leadership.' Kathleen Slaughter, associate dean (Asia) of the Richard Ivey School of Business, pinpointed a lack of financial knowledge that was preventing women from getting ahead in organisations. 'You will find them in communications, public relations, human resources management and marketing - they don't have profit and loss responsibility,' she said. 'Women will say: 'I am 35 and I am a little too old for an MBA'. The mindset has to change. If they don't develop their financial knowledge and ability they are not going to be senior people in their organisation. The answer is to go and get those skills and invest in yourself.' Ms Tsui said women could make it all the way to the top - if they were smart, talented, persevering and took the right steps. Women had taken the lead in fields such as accountancy and law but might be clinging to their specialism as a kind of comfort zone - and needed a break from stereotypes if they were to rise in business. 'If you really want to succeed, you need to step outside of the framework that has been traditionally set for women and explore new things,' she said. 'An MBA or EMBA would help an executive to improve his or her position.'