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Universities in Hong Kong

Where are all the women? 4 in 5 senior academics at Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities are men

Extra family workload and unconscious biases in hiring and promotion cited as key reasons for imbalance

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 8:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 11:56am

Four in five senior academics at Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities are men, the Post has found, fuelling concerns over gender equality in local higher education.

The latest figures, obtained from the University Grants Committee (UGC), suggest an environment of adversity for women rising through the ranks in academia. They also sparked renewed calls for the government and schools to introduce more family-friendly measures and extra training to battle unconscious biases against female staff.

Only 18.8 per cent of senior academic staff – defined by the UGC as professors, readers, principal and senior lecturers – at the eight public universities were women in 2017-18.

The University of Science and Technology (HKUST) was the least diverse institution, with a proportion as low as 12.2 per cent, compared with the Education University, where 27 per cent of senior academic staff were women.

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Faculties appeared to have become slightly less male-dominated in the lower ranks, with 33.7 per cent of junior academic staff and more than half of academic support staff – such as demonstrators, tutors and teaching assistants – being women. The overall female percentage of academic staff stood at 40.3 per cent.

Professor Susanne Choi Yuk-ping, of Chinese University’s sociology department, lamented the latest figures, saying they showed little change in two decades.

“It shows that society has not changed as we thought,” said Choi, who sits on the Equal Opportunities Commission, the city’s equality watchdog.

Choi blamed in part a lack of flexibility in policies for female academic staff, who she said often bore more family responsibilities than men.

The higher you go, the more men [there are]
Priscilla Roberts

“One has to build up his or her international status in order to be promoted to full professor. But, for instance, a lot of scholarships or fellowships offered by the universities would take as long as a year,” she said. “It would be tough for some female academics to put aside their family duties and go.”

Priscilla Roberts, formerly an associate professor of history at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), helped compile the gender breakdown of her arts faculty in 2014 to highlight the problem.

She found that while women made up 70.3 per cent of the faculty’s total academic staff and students, only 34.6 per cent of those at the professor grade were female. Among the 18 full professors, only four were women.

“The higher you go, the more men [there are],” Roberts said. “The gender ratios among teaching staff ... would be unacceptable in Britain, North America or other Western universities.”

In a 2015 survey led by Dr Sarah Aiston, of the University of Birmingham’s education school, two-thirds of the 361 women academics across Hong Kong’s eight public universities polled said they did not feel supported to consider or enter a leadership role within their institution.

While the study found senior managers tended to regard family factors as the primary explanation for the imbalance, Professor Petula Ho Sik-ying, an HKU gender studies expert, said the issue should not be oversimplified as the problem could be structural.

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Ho, a member of the HKU Women’s Studies Research Centre which promotes research and dialogue crucial to the development of women, gender and diversity studies, argued female academics faced a lot of unconscious biases as they tried to move up the ranks, and a system of evaluation usually dominated by men.

“The fact that I treated my students nicely has been regarded as ‘being too protective’,” she recalled of her own experience. “The universities should provide more unconscious bias training to their staff.”

Former HKU vice chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson acknowledged the long-standing issue during his term, and led the school to join the UN’s HeForShe initiative for gender equality in 2015.

As of last year, women accounted for more than half of students at HKU, less than 40 per cent of assistant professors, less than 30 per cent of associate professors and less than 20 per cent of full professors.

An HKU spokeswoman said the institution had adopted a multi-pronged approach to improving gender balance, especially in the academic ranks, including family-friendly measures and more gender-balanced recruitment and promotion committees.

HKUST also said it had enhanced benefits and support facilities for pregnant staff.

The EOC noted the under-representation of women in academic leadership was a global phenomenon and a structural issue across universities, which could be attributed to gender stereotyping and organisational cultures.

It called on the institutions to consider taking measures to tackle the problem, such as reviewing the current gender balance in schools, ensuring women have proper representation on hiring and promotion committees, and cultivating a more supportive atmosphere for gender sensitivity and breastfeeding on campus.