Engineering change

Sammi Wong, the MTR Corp's first female construction manager, has kept her career going in the right direction since arriving in HK in 1997

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 3:52am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 3:52am

Sixteen years ago, after three months of failed job applications, Sammi Wong Yuk-mei made two decisions when she applied for a civil engineering job in Hong Kong. She changed her name to Sam and omitted her gender.

The strategies worked.

An interview followed immediately, during which the company discovered that Wong was a woman. However, she was hired based on her performance at the interview and began her steady climb up the corporate ladder.

In January, she became the first female construction manager at railroad-property conglomerate MTR Corp.

However, women still confront a "glass ceiling" in the traditionally male-dominated engineering and construction industries.

"I often chair meetings in which I am the only woman among 20-odd contractors and engineers," said Wong, 38. "Some, who may be at the meeting for the first time, have a look on their faces that says: 'You're a girl and too young to manage a project and lead a team'."

Wong is one of two female civil engineers supervising construction projects for the MTR. The other 24 are men.

Shattering glass ceilings in the corporate world has come under the spotlight recently after several surveys showing that gender diversity at senior management or board level leads to better performance.

A Grant Thornton International report this year showed that Hong Kong ranked sixth globally for having the highest percentage of women in senior management roles, at 30 per cent, but this was a 3 per cent drop from last year and a 5 per cent decline from 2011.

It also revealed that most women promoted into senior management positions were in the traditional "pink collar" departments of human resources and marketing.

"It's a combination of push and pull factors that make for a leaky pipeline. The pull factors being that women still shoulder the majority of domestic responsibilities that increasingly include both childcare and elderly care, and the push factors being low workplace flexibility, long hours, macho culture and male-dominated leadership," said Su-Mei Thompson, chief executive of The Women's Foundation, a non-governmental organisation.

Hong Kong is among the bottom five economies when it comes to female chief executives, the Grant Thornton survey showed.

Rose Lee Wai-mun of Hang Seng Bank is the only female chief executive among 50 Hong Kong blue chips.

Alice Au Miu-hing, a co-head of board practice in Asia at executive search firm Spencer Stuart, said: "I have seen more women being transferred to Hong Kong and the trailing spouses are their husbands.

"When we hire a female senior executive for a multi- national firm, the management is overjoyed. Or sometimes, when we have hired a team of female executives, our client will ask us to hire some men for diversity."

Thompson, citing a survey by The Women's Foundation last year, said only 22 per cent of workers in the logistics and transport industry were women, with just 5 per cent in financial trading and 10 per cent in the technology sector.

Wong heads about 40 mainly male MTR engineers and works with hundreds of construction workers as she oversees the building of the Kai Tak station and a tunnel between the station and Diamond Hill station as part of the Sha Tin to Central rail link.

The HK$64.9 billion project is due for completion in 2018.

Her parents migrated from Hong Kong to Britain in the 1960s and she was born and educated in Britain. She came to Hong Kong in search of job opportunities in 1997.

Wong arrives at her temporary office on a muddy Kowloon City construction site in high heels and a smart suit but swiftly changes into Wellington boots and dons a safety helmet and reflective vest before roaming the site to ensure that the project will be delivered safely, on time and on budget.

She shrugs off the foul language that heats the air on site.

"Construction workers do swear, but it's not hostile," said Wong, who picked up most of her Cantonese from watching Hong Kong soap operas in Britain. "It doesn't bother me because I didn't realise they were swearing until I was told."

Wong said women had some advantages in jobs traditionally dominated by men.

"Women tend to be more caring and empathic in teamwork," she said. "I compliment my staff easily but many male managers may find it more difficult to express compliments verbally."

Thompson said women generally had a higher emotional intelligence than men and were better at reaching consensus, communicating and multitasking - all leadership qualities.

Wong said she expected the number of women taking up traditional male occupations would balloon as universities such as Hong Kong University of Science and Technology launched technology summer schools for secondary-age girls and encouraged more women to enrol in male-dominated subjects such as computer science and engineering.

Advances in technology also meant that less emphasis could be placed on physical strength, with a greater focus on planning, communication and problem solving.