Blowing Water

Hong Kong bosses, think again: working mothers are a bonus, not a burden

After a survey finds employers are avoiding hiring women with children, Luisa Tam says it’s up to the government, businesses and society at large to fix our mindset

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2018, 8:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2018, 8:30am

Some people believe having children will kill a woman’s ambition to succeed at work, or even ruin her career.

The truth is: in most cases, it doesn’t. But when a woman’s career is involuntarily put on hold or adversely affected, it’s most likely caused by companies that hold discriminatory attitudes towards working mothers.

Over the years and across the world, there have been numerous complaints against companies that are reluctant to hire working mothers, or go to great lengths to avoid hiring women of childbearing age, for fear of having to shell out maternity pay and leave. So I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that most of Hong Kong’s female workforce face discrimination over their family status, which means once a woman becomes a mother, her career prospects are wrecked.

A recent study by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has found that only 47.2 per cent of 102 employers surveyed said they would hire women with young children. The majority who rejected working mothers apparently made their decisions regardless of the candidates’ level of competence, commitment, or potential.

It is deplorable to see women being treated so unjustly once they have taken on caregiving responsibilities. It is even less acceptable as the government has been nudging married couples to help boost the city’s birth rate to replenish a rapidly ageing population.

Is it fair to ask women to contribute to building a better and more sustainable society while at the same time penalising them, instead of recognising and rewarding them?

To see this harmful practice being so prevalent and broadly ignored is disturbing, to say the least. The EOC study showed that most of the employees affected chose not to report their case, for various reasons such as not wanting to upset the boss or be seen as a troublemaker.

From 2011 to 2017, the EOC received 152 complaints about family status discrimination, which represented only 3.3 per cent of all its cases over the period.

Family plays a significant role in the growth and development of society, while children are our future and very often the “happiness anchors” in a family.

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Being a mother is unquestionably an important job, while it is also highly demanding, difficult and, time and again, underappreciated. Some tend to judge a mother when she frequently talks about her child at work. It is not a sign that she is distracted; it is in fact a compensatory behaviour because she is constantly wrestling with guilt that she is not a stay-at-home mum.

On the contrary, a working mother is a valuable asset. She is an effective manager, who is good at multitasking, and has good negotiation and conflict-resolution skills. Just imagine how difficult it is to convince a picky child to finish their meal, tame a colicky baby, or broker a peaceful end to a toddler toy fight.

A mother is good at adaptable thinking, maximising limited resources to achieve optimal results, and (little) people management. And no doubt these skills in raising a child can come in handy at work.

Working mothers really have some heavy lifting to do, both at work and at home as they are effectively holding two full-time jobs. And to critics who think they are just a peripheral workforce: think again, carefully.

Balancing the demands of motherhood and trying to hold down full-time employment is a challenge that is not for the faint of heart.

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Discrimination of any form should not be allowed to fester in society. Government, companies and every one of us should help nurture an environment that allows equal opportunities for working mothers to thrive in the workplace. We should remove all obstacles and make it easier for mothers to return to the workforce.

Meanwhile, the government must ensure companies are committed to equal pay and hiring for all, including working mothers. And we must change or reframe the perception that working mothers are less committed to their job than others without children.

Parenting is about the art of discipline. A mother has to have self-discipline first in order to discipline her offspring. The behaviour of a young child can be unruly, non-conforming, and often unpredictable. If a mother can manage her child and build a loving relationship, her parenting skills are just as valuable in a professional sense.

And just because working mothers (and fathers) openly show love for their family and offspring, it doesn’t mean they don’t love and value their work.

Working mothers are a bonus not a burden in the workplace, so spread the word. Let’s give these women a chance to show the world how tough and adaptable they are, whether it’s in a boardroom, an office, or under their own roof.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post