A mother is an asset, not a burden, to society. When will Hong Kong realise this?

  • Alice Wu says when Hong Kong penalises women for becoming mothers, we shouldn’t be surprised when an increasing number say they don’t want to have a family. The government must do more to change attitudes in society
PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2018, 10:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2018, 10:26am

Hong Kong women and their willingness, or otherwise, to reproduce have been making headlines recently. Apparently, some 15 per cent are “undecided” about having children, a 30-year high, according to a Family Planning Association survey.

More worrying, though, is that only 15.3 per cent of female respondents said they were interested in raising kids. In fact, 67 per cent are determined not to have a child or another baby. This naturally fuels concern about Hong Kong’s population level. But, while it’s true that only women can bear children, the burden shouldn’t be theirs alone.

The information revealed by the latest Family Planning Association survey is worrying, but it should not be unexpected. Only this summer, a survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission raised the alarm about how prevalent penalising motherhood is in Hong Kong. In that survey, less than half of employers said they would offer jobs to mothers of young children.

That is a shocking statistic — and it means that the “motherhood penalty” is not only real but accepted as the norm here. We already know about the gender pay gap — working women in Hong Kong earn considerably less than men on average. If they are in the education sector, the gap can reach close to HK$10,000 per month.

If women are being penalised professionally for being mothers – on top of the physical demands of the 40 weeks of being self-sustaining incubators for other human beings – then it makes perfect sense that an increasing number are determined not to have a child or, if they are already mothers, not to have any more children.

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The truth is that while there are plenty of surveys conducted, most have arrived at unsurprising conclusions. It’s the same story: the financial burdens and cramped living conditions are factors that affect women’s willingness to become mothers. These conclusions skirt the real issues – and we’re not just talking about the city’s lack of family-friendly policies.

It’s true that the cost of raising children, like Hong Kong’s cost of living, is pretty insane. But we need to recognise the bigger “financial” issue: that we are forcing women to lose their financial independence through our social acceptance of penalising them for becoming mothers and by saying that they are not desirable employees.

This is how we treat our women and mothers. We are expecting — even demanding — that they to give up their financial security and future for motherhood.

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And we have Executive Councillor Tommy Cheung Yu-yan – who has been at the forefront of attacking family-friendly policies – to thank for making sure new mothers know they are a burden to employers and thus to society, and for reinforcing the stereotype that men do not have to worry about responsibilities at home.

We’ve essentially been abandoning women for being mothers. Yet, now we’re surprised that fewer women are willing to leave themselves vulnerable, not only to the insulting abuse Cheung advocates, but in their financial future.

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Family-friendly policies do not address entrenched attitudes and practices. The government must do more to educate and change hearts and minds. Just because women bear the brunt doesn’t mean that these are women-only issues. To truly understand Hong Kong’s low fertility rate, we must start by treating it as more than a women’s issue. Stress is not the only cause of women’s infertility. And if we, as a society, continue to insist on working both our men and women to death, Hong Kong’s declining birth rate will not change.

A woman’s ability to give birth can be a contribution to society, but it’s by no means a women’s-only contribution. A woman’s choice in becoming a mother is not a burden to society and should not be treated as such.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA