After 13 years of education and training as an accountant in Britain, Alison Wong returned to Hong Kong in 1991 to join one of the city's largest multinational accounting firms. The firm had a policy of giving a HK$20,000 monthly married allowance to men but not to women - on the assumption that their husbands would provide for them. Ms Wong, although married, was given the monthly HK$14,000 allowance for single employees. She decided to fight for the married allowance. 'One of the firm's senior partners was a legislative councillor. At that time, legislative councillors, men and women, received equal pay packages,' said Ms Wong, a partner in specialist advisory services with Grant Thornton Hong Kong. 'I asked the partner how he could preside over this discrimination in the firm and not push for sex equality. I offered the same service, why should I be discriminated against? So I fought for the right to get the married allowance and, in the end, they gave it to me and changed the policy.' Times have changed. Blatant discrimination against women in the workplace has given way to more equality, aided by the Sex Discrimination Ordinance that made sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status and pregnancy illegal. But research is showing that many women, trying to attain senior positions in their careers, are still finding it difficult to balance work and personal life. A Gender Diversity Benchmark for Asia report, by Community Business - a non-governmental organisation focusing on corporate social responsibility - in March showed that more than one third of 21 widely-respected women in management positions had no children. Those interviewed were from China, India, Japan and Singapore. This suggests, that for many women, it remains difficult to have a career and family. The survey was conducted at the end of last year. The women interviewed said they almost always had to work harder and perform better than men to get ahead and to gain visibility. Many also expressed difficulty in finding a working style that would help them earn the respect of those around them. Being assertive was important, but it was equally important not to be seen as aggressive or threatening. 'Our women leaders told us that family and societal pressures often caused their female peers to stop working when they got married or had children since companies often did not have programmes, or the organisational culture, in place to easily allow women to manage both family and work responsibilities,' said Shalini Mahtani, chief executive of Community Business and one of the authors of the report. One woman who said she had risen to the twin challenges of developing a career and a family is Susanna Liew, general manager of Standard Chartered Bank's premium banking division. 'I was very busy when my daughter was young, so I used to take her to the office with me on Saturdays. It was hard to explain to her what I did every day but, when I brought her to the office, she understood; she knew I was engaged in a meeting and what that meant,' Ms Liew said. 'It's challenging sometimes but I manage by making sure that my daughter appreciates that my work is my interest, as well as my way of making a living. 'Having a career and a family is difficult, but it's about discipline and time management.' In the United States, almost 60 per cent of college students are women. Studies have shown that although women graduate with higher results than men, in the workplace those differences disappear. They can't climb the career ladder as quickly as men. According to Deirdre Lander, head of human capital group at Watson Wyatt Hong Kong, one possible reason is that workplaces are still dominated by men's views of how to succeed in the workplace. 'Women are not assertive enough or they don't know how to get mentored or build networks inside the organisation as well as men do. 'For a whole range of reasons, the ability of companies to access women's capabilities gets reduced as time goes on,' she said. To try and address this gap, multinationals and smart business owners have sought to engage women through offering professional networks and mentoring, traditional ways of moving ahead that are readily available to men - old boys' clubs, company golf circles - but are often implicitly denied to women. Lacking networks, women don't meet clients and make connections; without a corporate mentor, they are invisible to the top executives. 'One of the biggest challenges for many senior woman is that they lack executive sponsorship, someone at the top executive level who can sponsor them and help them to become more visible,' Ms Mahtani said. 'One of the best things about networks and mentoring is that they promote career growth through developing client opportunities and allowing women to form relationships with more senior people. The use of corporate mentors in particular is critical to help give women that executive sponsorship and the right platforms for visibility,' she said.