Gender equality

More must be done to help mothers return to the workforce

The value to the city’s workforce of women who resume their careers after having children should not be underestimated. But improvement is needed in many areas to help mothers re-enter the job market, from fighting discrimination to increasing the number of childcare places

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 9:39pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 9:39pm

Discrimination on grounds of family status has been against the law in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. But a recent study by the Equal Opportunities Commission shows there is a worrying lack of awareness of the problem in the city. The study revealed that less than half the employers questioned wanted to hire women with children, even if they were as competent as other candidates. Employees who feel they are discriminated against because they need to care for family members, rarely report incidents to the authorities. There is a need to make the community more aware of this form of discrimination and to take steps to combat it.

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Women who choose to have children often face tough challenges when seeking to return to work. Discrimination by prospective employers is not the only problem. Creating the circumstances which make it possible for mothers to re-enter the job market are just as important. We should not underestimate the value to the city’s workforce of women who resume their careers after having children. They can bring much-needed experience and expertise. It has been estimated that the labour market could be boosted by more than half a million workers if access for homemakers was increased.

Improvement is needed in a number of areas. Providing adequate leave for those who need to care for family members can help. The government is currently considering increasing Hong Kong’s maternity leave from 10 to 14 weeks. This should be done, as the city is lagging behind other parts of the world. Paternity leave should also be lengthened. But leave is not the only solution. Much more needs to be done to ensure that childcare facilities are improved. Welfare minister Law Chi-kwong recently promised to increase the number of childcare places by 300 over two years to combat a dire lack of such services in the city. He said the number of day crèches has fallen from a peak of 1,530 in 1995-96 to just 747 today. The demand for places at government childcare centres greatly outstrips supply. Increasing the availability of childcare is critical if mothers wishing to return to work are to be able to do so. More flexible working hours and increased use of part-time workers are also required.

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Discrimination on the grounds of family status was described by the EOC as “hidden discrimination”. Promotional and educational activities should be stepped up so that those who need to care for children are aware of their rights and know how to enforce them. It is encouraging that there is some evidence from the survey that small and medium-sized enterprises are willing to make changes in the future to provide a better working environment. But employers still need to better understand their responsibilities if we are to effectively combat such discrimination in the workplace.