People head to work in Hong Kong’s Central district on April 15, 2020. Retaining skilled women in the workforce and expanding opportunities for them is crucial to driving economic prosperity. Photo: Nora Tam
The View
by Janet Pau
The View
by Janet Pau

Bringing women back into the workplace is essential for Hong Kong’s pandemic recovery

  • Women’s wages and workforce participation have dropped since the start of the pandemic, while their unpaid duties have increased
  • But women are indispensable to Hong Kong’s future growth; closing the wage gap, while providing more support at home, can pave their re-entry to the workforce

As new Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu focuses on Hong Kong’s economic outlook, he must do more to narrow the widening gender gap. Women are vital to solving the multiple challenges our city faces: the ongoing pandemic, economic recovery and the development of new sectors for future growth.

The just-released World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report shows that global progress in achieving economic equality has been set back one entire generation by the pandemic. Economies in Asia lag behind and it is now estimated they will take more than 150 years to reach gender parity.
For two years, women in Hong Kong have been disproportionately shouldering unpaid domestic responsibilities, with more than 400 days of school closures and anti-pandemic measures putting huge stress on mothers and women caring for elderly or sick family members. Border closures and enduring restrictions have also made getting help from overseas much harder.

By contrast, some men said their well-being increased during the pandemic, with more time to relax, sleep and exercise.

The pandemic has reversed the trend of female workforce participation, which had been growing from a low base of just over 50 per cent – still behind many advanced economies. Female unemployment rates had been steadily declining in the five years before the pandemic, but doubled in 2020. As well as job losses, difficulties in juggling home and work responsibilities led some women to leave the workforce.


Job losses hit Indian women disproportionately during Covid-19 pandemic

Job losses hit Indian women disproportionately during Covid-19 pandemic

Progress in pay has also taken a hit. A decade ago, men and women in certain managerial, administrative and professional jobs were paid about the same, but by 2020 women across all industries were being paid less than men, regardless of their education level.

Retaining skilled women in the workforce and expanding opportunities for them is crucial to driving Hong Kong’s economic prosperity. Rising numbers of women are in professional careers; nearly three-quarters of primary and secondary-school teachers, half of solicitors, and one-third of medical doctors are women.

Beyond pandemic struggles, some skilled women have left Hong Kong due to their pessimistic views about the future. The government needs to listen to the concerns of women who are hesitant about having children or continuing their children’s schooling in Hong Kong, women who worry about caring for elderly or sick family members, and women who are overwhelmed or disengaged for other reasons.

Not addressing these concerns fully would risk further female workforce attrition and brain drain.

Other female workers have low-paying and temporary jobs, often involving menial labour that could be eliminated by future automation. Some are in undervalued health, social and personal-care jobs that enable other women to work in higher-value jobs. Shifting women into higher-productivity sectors by upgrading their skills, and expanding pay and benefits, will improve the livelihoods of these groups.
A woman and child head through the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge port on September 15, 2021. Photo: Sam Tsang
Emerging job clusters will need to attract more qualified women. Despite widespread STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) teaching in schools, only 10 per cent of all engineers in Hong Kong are female. Increased access to STEM internships could help women gain a foothold in the sector.
Diversity in STEM also ensures technologies are designed to meet various needs in society. More female coders, for example, would make it easier to avoid gender biases when training artificial intelligence algorithms.

Hong Kong is also keen to expand its arts and culture sector. While women are highly represented in this arena, they could drive its growth with initiatives to close the gender gap in pay and benefits, facilitate loans to female entrepreneurs and offer visas to attract overseas female talent.

Why gender diversity makes good business, social sense for Hong Kong firms

At the start of former chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s term, I wrote about what her government could do for women. During her time in office, statutory maternity leave was extended from 10 to 14 weeks, with additional pay covered by the government, and paternity leave increased from three to five days.
Corporate board diversity requirements came into force at the start of this year, ending single gender boards for publicly listed companies and IPO applicants. Newly listed companies with at least one female director have increased from 68 per cent in 2018 to 83 per cent in 2021.

But Lam may have also missed opportunities to demonstrate the empathy and consensus-building characteristic of effective female leaders, and to foster social cohesion and trust among people with different perspectives.

The new government has its work cut out. Only one-third of John Lee’s cabinet officials and about 19 per cent of Legislative Council members are women, below the current UN Sustainable Development Goal for Women metrics. This small group of female politicians must work to correct structural biases and develop concrete policies for women in all walks of life.

Paid parental leave with the flexibility of being shared between parents would encourage more women to return to work and rebalance responsibilities, which would also benefit children. Transparency in pay practices and continued increases in female representation in senior positions would also foster retention.

Hong Kong is suffering the malaise of a dwindling workforce and ageing population. A larger share of women are choosing not marry or have children, compounding the trend of sub-replacement fertility.

Hong Kong recently recorded its lowest birth rate in almost 60 years. Mainland Chinese immigration will not necessarily solve the issue, as Hong Kong’s high cost of living and reduced distinctiveness from the mainland may make it less attractive compared to other Chinese cities with vibrant job opportunities for couples and young families.

Promoting women’s participation and advancement, improving quality of life measures, and closing gender skill and pay disparities will encourage more women to take part in Hong Kong’s economy and contribute to its future prosperity.

Janet Pau is executive director of the Asia Business Council