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Why are there so few women in Hong Kong politics?

Just 11 women sit on Hong Kong’s 70-strong legislature. But the number of women leading political parties is on the rise. This International Women’s Day, we look at the state of female representation in the city.

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 5:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2016, 9:30am

There is an oft-cited adage that says no woman ever gets married or pregnant during her time in Hong Kong’s legislature.

That observation may be lighthearted. But it hints at a negative perception that for women a career in public office may require big personal sacrifices.

This idea’s effect on women’s participation in politics is debatable. But the fact remains women are still under-represented in Hong Kong’s legislature, with just 11 women among Legco’s 70 members – a number that has changed little over the years.

But evidence of change comes in the growing number of women taking the helms of parties across the political spectrum.

Suzanne Wu Sui-shan, 35, and 43-year-old Rosanda Mok Ka-han were recently elected chairwoman of the Labour Party and Association for the Democracy and People’s Livelihood respectively, bringing to eight the number of the city’s 11 major political parties led by women.

And now the question is whether the number of women leading political parties will impact on the number of women entering politics.

Emily Lau Wai-hing was the first woman in the city’s history directly elected to the colonial legislature in 1991.

READ MORE: Women’s quest for equality will remain out of reach until we begin to respect the value of domestic work

More than two decades on, the Democratic Party leader still only has 10 female colleagues in Legco. That’s just four more than in 1995, despite the chamber’s expansion from 60 to 70 members in 2012. And women made up 14.6 per cent of district councillors in 1999, to 17.2 per cent last year.

Veteran Lau said Hong Kong voters had never discriminated against female candidates, but said perhaps it was the Chinese traditional culture which deterred political participation by women.

“Voters are gender-blind,” she said. “What they care about is really your personal capacity, experience and whether you can represent them.”

She admitted not telling her family about her decision to run for office until the election, and that it drew mixed responses.

“That is a cultural issue. Some people still hold the thinking that we should leave the work of public affairs – which requires frequent exposure – to men,” Lau said.

“They don’t want to see their own family members doing it, but strangely they are happy to see female candidates running in elections.”

Less than 30 per cent of Democrats are now women, said Lau, adding the party has been trying hard to attract and retain female members with the hope that there would eventually be more female candidates standing in polls.

Another female political heavyweight looking for more women to join her male-dominated party is Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who founded the pro-establishment New People’s Party a few years ago.

The minister-turned-lawmaker said the huge gap between the experience of district councillors and lawmakers had stopped many women from taking a further step in their political careers.

“You could still give birth or get married if you are a district councillor,” Ip said. “But you have to make a lot of sacrifices – including lots of time and private time – to be in Legco, which is like living in a fishbowl.”

She said some women might be discouraged due to having traditionally-minded partners opposed to having a spouse with the high profile which results from public office.

“You can see most of the female members in Legco are not married. They are widowed, divorced or single,” Ip, whose husband died before she came to office, said.

Ip, formerly the city’s first female secretary for security, said her gender was an advantage in that role.

She said: “I think women are well-suited for the role because they play a dual role – a manager at the office and a caregiver at home … they are more compassionate.”

She referred to the theory of Joseph Nye, from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, that successful leadership might these days require what was once considered a “feminine” style.

“Treating co-workers as colleagues but not subordinates and to be more collaborative … this is now called ‘soft power’,” Ip said.

As well as shifts in attitudes, both Lau and Ip said the government could increase female representation by providing more childcare services in the community as well as family-friendly policies to empower women.

READ MORE: No rest for the wicked in the quest for democracy in Hong Kong, says the Civic Party’s Tanya Chan

They also said the Women’s Commission, which the government established 2001, should take a more proactive approach.

Others say the issue needs to be addressed by changing political structures and methods.

According to the United Nations, the percentage of women in parliament has almost doubled in the past two decades globally, with 22 per cent of all national parliamentarians women.

Rwanda had the world’s highest proportion of women parliamentarians at 63.8 per cent. Bolivia had 53.1 per cent and Cuba 48.9 per cent.

A UN report issued by its Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2014 recommended the Hong Kong government introduce temporary special measures to expedite the representation of women in politics.

Democrat lawmaker Dr Helena Wong Pik-wan, a political scientist who has researched the women’s movement and political participation, said the government could look for inspiration in places like South Korea or Scandinavia to encourage political parties to open up to women.

For instance, a gender quota system in South Korea stipulates that women must account for more than 50 per cent of proportional candidates for municipal council elections, with female-male alternative order on the nominee list.

Wong also highlighted a structural problem she said was crucial in disadvantaging women in Hong Kong politics: the existence of functional constituencies, a problem also raised by CEDAW.

Wong, a lecturer at the Polytechnic University’s General Education Centre, said all Legco’s functional constituency seats are currently taken up by men – except the so-called “super seats”, which are still considered directly elected as the winner would be returned by general voters after securing enough nominations from district councillors.

“The proportion of women in the legislature has never reached the level of 20 per cent as half of the seats now are functional constituencies, and they are career-based,” she said, saying homemakers were disadvantaged as there was no constituency to represent them.

Wong said the proportion of female members in Legco would not radically change unless the trade-based or professional-based constituencies are scrapped.

Most changes needed to boost the number of women in politics could not be made quickly, but Ip pointed out there was at least one thing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying could do now.

In contrast to the legislature and district councils, the city’s leader has the right to appoint his or her own cabinet as well as members serving on government advisory and statutory bodies.

Ip said former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa appointed a lot of female top officials, like former environment and food chief Lily Yam Kwan Pui-ying, former transport and works chief Sarah Liao Sau-tung and herself.

Carrie Lam Cheng yuet-ngor is the only woman in Leung’s 16-strong cabinet.

“I am not saying the chief executive has any gender preference,” said Ip.“But it is for the government to redress the imbalance. It is within their gift.”