With government help, women in Hong Kong need not have to choose between careers and motherhood
Paul Yip says that the birth of the New Zealand prime minister’s child is a reminder that with the proper support, women can choose to have both children and their careers. New Zealand and Denmark are two examples showing how it can be done
It is interesting to read discussions in the media about New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her newborn daughter. Ardern worked until her due date. It is reported that she will take only six weeks of maternity leave before returning to work.
There are some critics who say she is not being realistic about coping with two highly demanding jobs: head of government and mother. Certainly, as a prime minister, she would be busy enough. Some suggest that she needs to identify more deputies with whom she can share duties.
Professional women, including in Hong Kong, are often caught between family formation and career advancement. We have seen women who concentrate on their careers and delay childbirth. When they are more settled in their jobs, the chances of conceiving become much more difficult due to their more advanced age.
Also, a Family Planning Association of Hong Kong survey suggests that the gap between ideal and actual numbers of children is widening. For most Hong Kong women, the ideal number of children is two, but the actual number of children they have is only one. The main barriers to achieving this ideal are the financial burden, insufficient living space and quality of education.
The high living costs in Hong Kong usually require more than one income in a family to meet needs. The severe shortage of childcare services worsens the situation. Parents, usually the mother, must make the tough call of either pursuing their careers or staying home to look after the children.
Hong Kong’s 350,000 live-in domestic helpers have helped parents who would like to or need to work. There are complaints about the quality of child care provided by domestic helpers and indeed there is much room for improvement. It is encouraging to see that the government is willing to deploy more resources for childcare. Most Hong Kong parents have had to work extremely hard to ensure financial sustainability and their children’s well-being.
Parents should be given the necessary support to look after our younger generation. Our recent study shows parents are a very diverse group. Some prefer to stay home to look after their own children, while some hope to remain in the workforce and others want both, albeit with a more flexible working arrangement. One size never fits all.
In view of the rapidly changing population dynamic in Hong Kong, with a low fertility rate and longer life expectancy, family size has decreased to an average of 2.8 members. There are increasingly more nuclear families, with less support from grandparents, as was common in prior generations.
It is in the interest of the government that more choices and support be made available to parents. With appropriate support, they can participate in the workforce, so as to lower the poverty rate and improve the well-being of families. The poverty of single-parent households in Hong Kong is about 28 per cent, compared to only 10 per cent in Denmark, where there is more comprehensive childcare support. The investment in childcare can actually help reduce social welfare spending.
We should aim to build gender equality in society through a family-friendly work environment and helping individuals pursue their dreams.
New Zealand has been championed as an ideal place to raise a family. It has attracted many migrants from Hong Kong and elsewhere. In my recent visit, I found that it is not just a land of beautiful parks, affordable housing, clean air and water, safe food and quality education, but a place where parents can make choices with the necessary support.
The prime minister seems intent on enjoying her work and looking after her newborn. If there is to be any hope for a rebound in fertility in Hong Kong, we must cultivate a supportive environment for parents to make similar choices.
Paul Yip is chair professor (population health) at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration of the University of Hong Kong