People going to work in Central on September 14. The issue of the city losing its best and brightest, from the financial and other sectors, has become a pressing concern. Photo: Jonathan Wong
Alice Wu
Alice Wu

Tackle Hong Kong’s brain drain head on, starting with the gender pay gap

  • The government has been taking the brain drain seriously, ahead of an all-important financial summit to be hosted in the city in November
  • For a start, the chief executive should tackle the problem by addressing the gender pay gap and unlocking the potential of working women
When he was still chief secretary, John Lee Ka-chiu responded to an article on Hong Kong’s perceived brain drain and wrote of his faith in the city’s continuing appeal to global talent. Months have since passed, he has moved up the ranks and is now chief executive, yet the issue of the city losing its best and brightest has become a more pressing concern: how will the loss of talent, home-grown or not, impact the recovery of our pandemic-battered economy?
If no news is indeed good news, then this city has been hit by an onslaught of bad news. The apparent tension between health officials and health experts over Covid-19 policy is a bad omen. So is the cancellation of the chief executive’s trip to Guangdong province to discuss ways to fully reopen the border with the mainland.
As Lee acknowledged in his response to the article on the brain drain, people have left the city for many reasons, and some “have been unable to return, taken up temporary residence elsewhere or delayed plans to come to Hong Kong until the pandemic situation stabilises and travel restrictions have eased”. While we have come a long way since the 21-day hotel quarantine and frequent flight bans, as the rest of the world continues to open up, Hong Kong is as good as strapped in a straitjacket.

Many do appreciate the difficult position Hong Kong is in, as the city is undeniably part of China. Being stuck in limbo, neither in step with the mainland nor with the rest of the world in terms of Covid-19 measures, has made it challenging for us to attract talent.

Another piece of bad news is that even the high-net-worth individuals are leaving. As the number of millionaires declined in the first half of the year, Hong Kong fell out of the world’s top 10 wealthiest places, to No 12, according to migration consultancy Henley & Partners. People with at least US$1 million in investible assets fell by 14 per cent to 125,100.


Abandoned pets fill Hong Kong shelters amid mass emigration of city’s residents

Abandoned pets fill Hong Kong shelters amid mass emigration of city’s residents
With the city’s financial summit drawing near, the real reason the government had to sit up and take the brain drain seriously is probably the danger of losing more top earners from the city’s financial and technological sectors. As it happens, the Hong Kong summit – to which more than 100 top bankers, fund managers and finance executives have been invited – will coincide with a major fintech gathering in Singapore. The prospect of competition has prompted Lee to vow to host a “successful financial summit” in November.
It’s going to take a lot more than that, though, for Hong Kong to get its mojo back. Even school administrators have been asking the government to plug the brain drain from education. If we don’t have enough teachers to educate our shrinking student population, there will be far-reaching consequences, even if we manage to reverse the trend in better times.
It is often in the worst of times that the fundamental problems we have not solved are laid bare, and this last bit of bad news is perhaps the most disheartening. According to the latest data from the Census and Statistics Department, the pay gap has widened for women holding top jobs. Women in managerial positions earned HK$9,800 (US$1,248) or almost one-fifth less than their male counterparts in the second quarter of the year.

To keep its competitive edge, Hong Kong must stem the brain drain

This gap widened from 15.8 per cent last year and 6.98 per cent five years ago. Income disparity worsened for professional women as well; they earned 15.6 per cent less than men this year, whereas the gap was 11.1 per cent in 2018.

Even for women in clerical jobs, there was a gap of 4.7 per cent. Age was also a factor in the income disparity, according to the data.

For years we have been talking about unlocking and tapping the full potential of women in the workplace to address the ageing of our population. It is clear that when times are tough, women are harder hit and paid less.

During the pandemic, women have also had to take up more unpaid work as caregivers to family members. It is counterintuitive to be disincentivising women from returning to the workforce after they take time off for family reasons. While the government is a model of equal opportunity employment, it must do more.

Mr Lee, please start plugging the brain drain by making it equally financially rewarding for women to work in this city. We can’t afford not to create a level playing field for women in the workplace.

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