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City Weekend

What Hong Kong can do to help women in work

While the city’s labour force is increasingly female, and professional workers report some progress at the top of society, boardrooms are still mostly male, and poorer women are shackled by childcare

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2018, 11:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 11:32am

As a woman in Hong Kong’s male-dominated political arena, legislator Tanya Chan believes feminism isn’t just a women’s issue, but also about empowering people affected by other prejudices and social barriers.

Chan, 46, is one of 10 female members of the city’s Legislative Council, which has 70 seats but only 64 members currently, pending by-elections and disqualification appeals.

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She says that, although she does not experience sexism personally in politics, many other women in Hong Kong continue to face barriers when trying to get ahead, with unequal pay and male-dominated boardrooms the most pressing issues.

To me, feminism is not only about women’s rights, but also fighting for the rights of every minority
Tanya Chan

“I just assumed [when entering the working world] that everyone would treat everyone equally,” she says. “But, of course in reality that’s not always the case.

“To me, feminism is not only about women’s rights, but also fighting for the rights of every minority.”

Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, advocates say they doubt Hong Kong can become an entirely women-friendly society, although the city is doing a better job than many others in the region.

Hong Kong has its first ever female chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, and some female high-achievers say progress has been made towards equality in some professions. But similar advancement has yet to reach the city’s poor, partly because the government has done little to help enhance upward mobility for women in low-income families.

Greater gender awareness

A 2014 survey on the number of women in workplaces ranked Hong Kong third out of six major regional economies. The survey, by the charity Community Business, polled 32 multinational companies in Hong Kong, mainland China, India, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore and found that Malaysia topped the chart with 58.1 per cent of its workforce female, followed by mainland China with 56.7 per cent. 

Hong Kong came third with 50.9 per cent, up more than 5.5 percentage points on three years earlier. 

But despite those increases in the share of the workforce, a spokesman for the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) said the city has still arguably not improved awareness of the importance of gender equality and non-discriminatory practices.

He says: “Despite the efforts made in the past decades in promoting gender parity in Hong Kong, men and women are not on an equal footing in the workforce, especially in terms of women’s labour force participation rate and the gender pay gap.”

Sex education 

Despite the efforts made in the past decades in promoting gender parity in Hong Kong, men and women are not on an equal footing in the workforce
Equal Opportunities Commission

As working women here continue to face barriers to getting ahead, the lack of sex education is to blame for the long-held societal expectation that women should have more family duties than men, says Raees Begum Baig, an assistant professor at Chinese University’s department of social work. 

She says many people wrongly think sex education is about reproduction, when according to UN guidelines it is a key to breaking the glass ceiling by starting to talk about gender equality at a younger age.

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Last month, pro-Beijing legislator Edward Lau Kwok-fan voiced that common conception, questioning the ability of some teachers who had never dated and had no experience of sex to provide sex education.

“Sex education is not only about sex,” Begum Baig says. “It’s about breaking down the stereotypes and reshaping the gender discourse through education. But the local education has never covered this kind of topic.”

Women leaders

In 2015, then chief executive Leung Chun-ying announced that the appointment rate of women to government advisory and statutory bodies should be raised from 30 to 35 per cent. The EOC described that as “an important step towards ensuring that women’s perspectives are integrated into the policymaking process” and called for it to be brought in as a formal goal.

But in the corporate world even that aspiration seems forlorn for now.

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Only 12 per cent of directors at Heng Seng Index-listed companies were female, according to figures provided last year by the EOC.

Meanwhile, working women earn at least a few thousand dollars less than men on average, according to a 2016 census report. The largest pay gap was found in the education sector, where women get HK$9,800 less per month than men.

If people are not educated on gender issues, the government’s policy of boosting women in the workforce would still be far from effective, adds Begum Baig.

Empowering the less privileged

With the existing barriers at work for women, both Chan’s and Begum Baig’s professional achievements seem to be almost entirely self-made. But the two say their sectors have been making progress in achieving gender parity.

And there is one thing they both hope to change to make Hong Kong a more women-friendly society: empowering the city’s poorer women by boosting childcare and helping tens of thousands of female homemakers who want to return to work.

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According to a study last year by the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), inadequate childcare services and insufficient allowances were the two main obstacles for women trying to return to work after having a child.

Currently, mothers are expected to wait for childcare services for months, or even up to a year. 

A poll of 101 female respondents, who were unemployed and received Comprehensive Social Security Allowance, found seven out of 10 hoped to escape poverty by returning to work.

There are more than 100,000 children in low-income families, but only 40,000 places for children at government childcare facilities, according to the organisation.

Releasing the female workforce

In an earlier interview with the Post, Chan Yuen-han, chairwoman of the Women’s Commission and a former legislator, said childcare services in Hong Kong had not improved in decades, and that boosting them was one of the commission’s foremost tasks since she took office in January this year.

She said freeing homemakers to get back to work could inject about 530,000 people – mostly women – into the workforce.

But Begum Baig says she hopes people who still choose to be homemakers would get the same respect as those at work. “Empowering women by giving them jobs is not enough,” she says. “Society still has a lot to learn when it comes to recognising the social contributions made by full-time housewives.”

Additional reporting by Rachel Leung