Gender equality

Every day is a day nearer the goal of gender equality in Hong Kong’s corporate world

Diana Cesar says women’s progress towards parity in the workplace depends not just on business leaders’ practical support, but also consistent efforts from the women themselves

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 2:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 11:32am

When it comes to gender parity, Hong Kong is one of the most equal societies in Asia. Yet, even here, the corporate world remains predominantly a man’s world.

Changing that – getting more women not only to stay in the workforce but also to advance all the way to the C-Suite – is not just fair; it also makes good economic sense. And it requires input from companies, society, and from women themselves.

While we need to be vocal and visible, we need to do so without being branded ‘difficult’. This is a tough balance for any manager – but it is especially difficult for women

Of course, we have made a lot of progress over the past few decades. The female proportion of Hong Kong’s labour force is far higher than it once was. Women are well represented in the civil service. They account for about half of university enrolments.

And yet, women hold just 11.1 per cent of directorships in Hong Kong’s top companies, according to a report by Community Business, a non-governmental organisation. Only 11 of the legislature’s 70 members are women. All the judges of the Court of Final Appeal are men. And median wages for women are significantly below those for men.

It is not easy to change long-held mindsets. Women in Hong Kong may have more opportunities than those in many other Asian economies, but they are still expected to balance their working life with looking after their family.

READ MORE: Forget about gendered careers, women’s workplace equality is a necessity in Asia’s aging population

Over the years, I have seen many capable female colleagues pull back from their career trajectories because they were concerned that they would not be able to give as much energy, time and effort as was needed for the path ahead. It is often the case that women have to go many more miles to get their voices and viewpoints heard. Generally, that means needing to be well prepared with research and data when it comes to promoting a concept or pushing an agenda. It also means spending more time than our male colleagues canvassing stakeholders to convince them of our ideas and proposals.

READ MORE: Developing Asia needs to tackle gender discrimination to maximise women’s potential in society

We have to do all this while striking a delicate balance: While we need to be vocal and visible, we need to do so without being branded “difficult”. This is a tough balance for any manager – but it is especially difficult for women, and even more so for those in Asia, where women are often expected to be self-effacing.

The good news is that, as long as you have a positive and energetic spirit, these challenges can be overcome. The other good news is that things are getting better. My own career path, and those of several other female senior executives at HSBC, is proof that women can attain senior positions in Hong Kong, even in traditionally male-dominated sectors.

In part, this is because of a growing realisation that enabling women to participate more fully in the workforce is not just a matter of social fairness: it is crucial for societies like Hong Kong, which are ageing rapidly. Recently, McKinsey and the Asian Development Bank both published research showing that more gender equality in the workforce could substantially boost economic output around the globe.

What is more, there are many ways that companies can help women manage their work and private responsibilities, and to keep climbing the corporate ladder. Flexible hours, remote working and the option to return gradually after maternity leave all make a big difference to working mothers.

Hong Kong companies are increasingly issuing such policies. To make these policies really effective, companies also need to ensure they are implemented. They need to establish a corporate culture where it is acceptable for colleagues to actually take advantage of flexible hours, for example.

READ MORE: Quota system to close gender gap on Hong Kong corporate boards may do more harm than good

As we transition towards greater gender diversity in the workplace, quotas and self-imposed targets to ensure a certain proportion of female representation may have some value as an interim measure but they are not the long-term solution. Ultimately, candidates should be hired and promoted purely on ability and track record. Gender shouldn’t be a criterion at all.

Finally, women need to do their part when it comes to pursuing their goals, including by staying positive and believing in themselves. It may be an employer’s responsibility to facilitate gender equality. But it’s a woman’s responsibility to pursue her ambitions.

Diana Cesar is chief executive, Hong Kong, of HSBC