Women still battle to break glass ceiling in Hong Kong

Hong Kong women are struggling to attain executive positions because they lack opportunities and support, and also personal confidence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 7:22pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 7:28pm

Despite Hong Kong's status as an international financial centre offering equal education and career opportunities for women, they still find it difficult to break through the glass ceiling.

In films and advertisements, women are often seen wearing bikinis or beautiful dresses in roles designed to attract the male hero. In reality, many are assigned to supporting roles in the office and can only hope to reach middle management level. Only in a few exceptional cases do they manage to take a seat at the executive boardroom table or make it to the chief executive suite.

Lau Ka-shi, chief executive of BCT Group, recalled how she was the only female trainee among an office packed with men when she started her career at an American bank.

"Affirmative action was prevalent at that time. As a woman and the only Asian on the trainee programme, hiring me helped the bank fulfil both quotas in one go," she said.

At that time, Lau said the more visible and interesting work would be given to her male colleagues, while she was assigned in-house roles such as credit analysis.

"The mind-set of management was that they asked the guys to go and meet clients while as a girl, I was supposed to do the in-house work. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise as credit management is a very important function of the bank," she said.

Lau said it had taken longer for her to get promotions compared with her male colleagues.

"While my confidence was affected, I was determined to show the others that I could do the same or even a better job than my male colleagues," Lau said.

The rest is history. Lau has been in the top job at BCT Group since 2002, among the few women who have broken through the glass ceiling.

Only 31 per cent of management positions in Hong Kong are held by women, down from 33 per cent last year, according to the 2015 Hays Asia Salary Guide. Hong Kong is behind mainland China, which had 36 per cent and Malaysia at 34 per cent, but ranks higher than Singapore with 27 per cent and Japan at 19 per cent. The average for Asia was 29 per cent.

In Hong Kong, 11 per cent of the directors of Hang Seng Index constituent companies are female, according to the 2015 survey by non-profit organisation Community Business. This is up from 9.6 per cent recorded in last year's survey but lags behind a figure of 19 per cent in the US, 23 per cent in Britain and 40 per cent in Norway.

There are only four female chief executives among the 50 Hang Seng Index constituent stocks, the Community Business report shows.

To try to address the imbalance, executive search firm Harvey Nash has teamed up with the University of Hong Kong to provide a board directorship training programme for women.

Harvey Nash director Kirti Lad said when it approached potential candidates for a chief executive-level job, men were more confident than women.

Even if they only fulfil half of the competencies required for the role, men will typically still put their hand up. However, even when women fulfil more than 80 per cent of requirements, they may still be unsure of trying out for the job, according to Lad.

"Many women in Hong Kong have not pushed themselves forward to take up top posts. They lack confidence and visible role models. We hope the women's directorship programme can help more women to prepare themselves to be directors," she said. Lad added that companies also had a role to play, citing the example of some big Japanese companies that do not even have separate toilets for female workers at their factories.

"The chairman and top management should provide a better working environment to attract female talent. They should consider appointing more qualified women as directors, as they would benefit from a balanced and diverse board," she said.

While Hong Kong women find it hard to break the glass ceiling within a corporate environment, setting up their own business and being their own boss may be more appealing to them.

Hong Kong ranks second in the world when it comes to women setting up a business, with 45 per cent of entrepreneurs in the city being female, according to a global survey by French bank BNP Paribas. Hong Kong was only behind India, where 49 per cent of entrepreneurs are female, and came in ahead of France with a figure of 42 per cent, and the US and mainland China with 36 per cent each. The global average was 37 per cent.

Jennifer Chan, a banker turned entrepreneur, set up her consultancy services business in 2003 after she had two baby daughters.

Before then, she was a department head of a European bank, which meant she was on the phone late at night talking with European clients, making it difficult to take care of her children.

"Setting up my own business allowed me to have flexible working hours to take care of my daughters. I work the same long hours as I did at the bank, but being the boss of my own company I can decide when to have a meeting and when to leave the office to take care of my family," she said.

Christine Lam, country business manager of Citibank global consumer banking, said the support women received from their husbands and domestic helpers was vital for top executives.

"I have a very supportive husband, and I rely on domestic help like most other families in Hong Kong. There is no magic to what I do," she said. "I don't believe in worrying about the kids' homework while in the office or working on the BlackBerry non-stop at a family dinner."

With this level of support, Lam believes women can climb to the top of the corporate ladder because Hong Kong companies are fairly open.

"The discrimination I see most often is within the women themselves. They do not believe they can do the job and as a result tend to shy away from the opportunities," Lam said.

"All the research I have read seems to confirm a positive correlation between a more diverse board and a more diverse management team and better financial performance, which presumably cannot be achieved without delivering better service and performance for clients," she said.

Lee Kee chief executive Clara Chan Yuen-shan said female executives mostly needed child care support. "I believe flexible working hours are vital to help women in the workplace. We support staff who need to take care of their children," she said.

"They may leave the office earlier if they need to take their children home, while they can follow up with the clients by phone or by email at home. They can take care of both their jobs and their family in this way."