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Advancing Hong Kong's focus on achieving greater gender balance in the workforce

Insights from Fiona Nott, CEO

The Women's Foundation Hong Kong  

Why does Hong Kong have such a low female workforce participation rate?


Fiona Nott: "There are several key reasons:

  • Gender stereotypes

  • Lack of family friendly policies

  • Discriminatory treatment

At work, women are often evaluated differently from their male peers.  Traits that are positively correlated with leadership amongst men, e.g. ‘competitiveness’ or ‘assertiveness’, are often negatively correlated for women by statements like ‘bossy’ or ‘aggressive’. At home, women are still expected to shoulder disproportionate amounts of housework, childcare and eldercare responsibilities.  In a nutshell, we see those gender stereotypes at work and across society here where women are pigeonholed in those traditional roles.  These stereotypes contribute to a lack of women in the workplace. 


With regards to a lack of family friendly policies, Hong Kong has some of the longest working hours in the world and as you would have seen from the EOC report, some mothers are not in favor of family leave policies as they reinforce the stereotype that mothers cannot focus on career development.  As a city we have a culture of presenteeism, the longest working hours in the world and a lack of part time and flexible work options. 


In terms of discriminatory treatment, our view is that Hong Kong is not a city that is friendly to working mothers. That point is very clearly reflected in last August's study from the EOC when researchers asked employers in Hong Kong about their ideal job candidates and less than 50% said they would hire women with children.  We also know that around one third of women drop out of the workforce due to family care responsibilities and those who keep working may experience that widespread motherhood penalty.  Another barrier that we see is sexual harassment, which is a large problem in Hong Kong."

The #metoo movement has brought some of these issues into the public domain.  Have you found that it’s a topic that people are now more open about discussing?  Is there now less of a social stigma if people are brave enough to put their heads above the parapet?


FN: "The #metoo movement has led to a greater discussion around women’s participation at work, women in the workplace, but sexual harassment remains an issue that is not talked about. That is a real problem, so that is something we are working on actively at the moment.  In terms of sexual assault, 1 in 7 women experience a sexual assault, but 90% don’t report it.  These figures are big and there is a great deal of fear and stigma around reporting, because of the victimisation and the lack of support." 

Hong Kong's Female Talent Pipeline Study points to a clear issue at the mid-level management level and above in terms of women dropping out of the workforce at these stages.  What measures can companies / the wider business community / the government etc, implement to better manage the female talent pipeline?


FN: "All of these sectors have a role to play and need to work together. The first issue that needs to be tackled is childcare.  

Childcare options for working parents are severely lacking in Hong Kong and have a trackable effect on women, as we know around one third of women drop out of the workforce due to caring responsibilities. Those who do keep working face the motherhood penalty which is less than half of women with children. We know that policies that support working mothers and fathers leads to greater diversity in the workplace, which in turn leads to better business outcomes. The aim should be for all to thrive in the workplace.  A company with parental leave options for employees is key, as is the government supporting greater childcare support. There is a bit of a myth in Hong Kong that childcare is easily available through foreign domestic helpers. However home help is only available to 11% of households - primarily wealthier households - so it’s not across the board at all. And actually if that were something that was helpful we would see more women at the senior leadership level, so it’s not the only solution in terms of childcare, but it’s one.  We need to have more childcare options available and companies should be implementing greater paternity and parental leave.




We know there is a great appetite for flexible work options policies in Hong Kong.  If you look at the Hays (Asia Diversity report) from earlier this year, 87% of Hong Kong people - both men and women - say that flexibility is a top consideration when weighing up options of a potential new employer.  


When women face these structural and behavioral biases in the workplace, this can affect how they are evaluated for promotions, how much they are paid, what access they have to core parts of the business, what access they have to sponsors and overseas opportunities.  So how do we make the way we work much more friendly to women? 


The government has a significant role to play to strengthen childcare and maternity leave policies. The government is leading the way with that in the civil service, setting an example that we hope companies will step up and follow suit.  


Government, business and civil society need to work together on these issues. We should also be trying to encourage more women into the workplace as the participation rate is low. To do that, we need to look at the nature and structure of work, including flex options and childcare options, removing some of these biases."  


Those who become mothers clearly crave / need more flexibility in their roles.  What can be done to change working practices in HK to be more family friendly? 


FN: "We need better education amongst employers, more awareness of the benefits of having greater diversity in the workforce. This includes the benefits of having more women at senior management levels and in the total workforce and the benefits of having more family friendly policies.  For that to happen we need positive reinforcement from the government and the community that mothers can simultaneously thrive in their careers and as parents, not an either or.  


More part time work would allow more flexibility and greater work life balance. Anecdotally, during my time in Hong Kong I have certainly seen more of that becoming available, probably as a result as a push from employees and people wanting more work-life balance. A survey (the new world of work), showed that 75% of Hong Kong respondents indicate that work life balance is important to their jobs and a Kelly Global workforce index revealed that 46% of Hong Kong residents would forego a pay rise to reduce their workload. 










Why isn’t Hong Kong more proactive in creating roles like this?  It goes back to Hong Kong’s deeply entrenched culture of presenteeism and working long hours – we work some of the longest in the developed world. We are an action-orientated city where we see amazing creativity in terms of business drive here.   There is an immediate opportunity in front of you, people look at that in quite a short-term way – “I need to deliver this therefore I need this kind of workforce”.  Whereas when you are looking at the longer term sustainability and the benefits of strategy, you then look at issues like diversity.  What we need is commitment to look at the future of Hong Kong and the future of work from a longer-term perspective - putting in place strategies to get there.  This includes acknowledging we have a gender diversity problem, but that getting more women into the workplace would bring both business benefits and increase our GDP."  


What is your view on part time / job sharing?  Why aren’t there more positions of this nature in Hong Kong?  Do you think part time work could be a stepping stone on the road to greater gender balance in the workforce?


FN: "Job sharing is part of the solution but I think we have to be careful with it, because you don’t want to put women in part time positions that don’t allow them to advance.  There needs to be recognition that part time can also move you up the ladder. This means that we need part time roles not just at the junior level but all throughout the organisation up to senior levels; otherwise we risk moving women off into a sector of part time work where pay gaps become greater and women can’t really advance.  It’s not a simple solution.  For example, contract work - which on the surface looks like an easy solution - has issues with access to MPF and retirement benefits. There are over a million women in Hong Kong that don’t have access to retirement benefits, whether they are homemakers or part time workers and that is a huge problem.


Because of unintended consequences like these with regards to adopting part time work, there needs to be a wholesale look at how we work.  This involves looking at the whole structure of how we work and making sure that those part time solutions still help women and continue to enable them to have a seat at the table. Offering flexible work options only to women is a problem, so it has to be offered across the board.  We have to encourage more men to take up those options. What we are seeing, and data is backing up, increasing numbers of men are also interested in having flexible work options, family friendly policies and more work-life balance.


In implementing ideas that have worked in other places, we have to make sure solutions work for Hong Kong.  For example, initiatives such as working from home may not be an ideal solution in Hong Kong. We live in very small spaces, so a lot of people like to spend time in their offices because they are more conducive to getting work done. We need to be smarter in terms of how we approach things and find what will work for the city that fits our culture and that will benefit the way we work here." 

Hong Kong's Female Talent Pipeline data highlights a lack of aspiration in the younger generation.  What can we do as a society to elevate our young peoples’ aspirations to reach the top? How can we manage Hong Kong people’s aspirations?


FN: "Looking at young people here is a complex issue.  The important question is how do we make sure that there are work opportunities for our young people?  And in the context of AI and the development of technologies, what are the jobs of the future or fear around jobs being lost? Where young people see their future?  

We see the younger generations as founders of innovative startups – many of them have engaged in civil society.  I think traits of ambition, tenacity, resilience, agility that are really helpful when you rise up a corporate ladder, I think they’re there, but perhaps young people are seeking a less traditional path to success.  Companies are talking about the future of work and what it means in terms of opportunities for people.  They are also increasingly speaking about the younger generation's values. If some of the younger generation are wanting flexibility and independence or working with companies that are grounded in social values, that’s an important consideration.  So I think you’ve got women across the workplace, and some men, craving more work-life balance and potentially we’ve got young people who are pushing for that as well and trying to think about how to navigate those needs."    

Our research highlights that women in Hong Kong have a lack of role models to aspire to. Some mention international names such as Emma Watson but very few highlight or mention local leaders etc. What can be done, and is this an important factor?  

FN: "We know that having visible female role models is important for stoking women’s ambitions, people’s ambitions. Even though we have a female chief executive in Hong Kong, we lag behind our neighbours and our global financial peers in terms of the number of senior women - at board level and also across sectors. It is an equity issue – the number is embarrassingly low – and we can do better than that.  Having more female role models is very important across the structure of society and that’s why we are very focused on women on boards and women in very senior leadership positions.  There is a study by Accenture that showed a strong correlation between women with role models and women with leadership goals, particularly for women in male dominated professions.  


We know role models are even more important for young women. Numerous studies show young women earn better grades, think more about their futures and life goals when they have role models.  So we incorporate exposure to role models into our community programmes, particularly for our programmes that encourage more girls to take up STEM subjects. We think there are many local female change-maker and, they are starting to get more recognition through events such as the Women of Influence Awards and TEDx talks. We need to do more of it.   


The reason why we are very focused on women on boards is that it’s a strategic issue. Having more women on top will change the dynamic - not only at the top end of companies - but all the way down through the workforce and society.  Women are often more likely to look at sexual harassment policies and ask questions about issues like these, at a board level or talk about flexible work because they have more connection to it."

Is the pay gap a big issue in Hong Kong?  The motherhood penalty seems to be playing out in Hong Kong – how can this be managed? 


FN: "The pay gap in Hong Kong is 22%, which is worse than 10 years ago.  More data is not publicly available and that’s a challenge. Without more detailed data the extent of the issue isn’t known and companies face no pressure to correct those imbalances.  If we draw on the UK example, our position is the government should call on companies to publicly disclose their data on gender pay gap, so there is a clear idea of where the gap might be coming from and how best to address it. We also are of the view that, in line with some states in the United States and Canada, employers should not ask job candidates to disclose their previous salary (which is very common in Hong Kong) as this disadvantages women because they may have been paid under the market rate. There needs to be more transparency around the gender pay gap so that we can understand what we are dealing with in Hong Kong.  


We can talk about women progressing at work, but we really have to address this discriminatory behaviour like the Motherhood Penalty that is continuing in Hong Kong.  We need more education from the government and within companies, raising awareness about the benefits [gender diversity brings] and that discriminatory practices are just not acceptable.  Another issue is around the stigma and fear of speaking up about issues like the Motherhood Penalty and sexual harassment, and the EOC of the government can't take action against people unless it is reported.  So it’s a vicious circle."         


In your experience do Hong Kong companies view gender diversity as a hindrance or as a true business priority?


FN: "Companies we work with closely very much recognise the benefits [of gender diversity] and are tackling the issue. In terms of Hong Kong overall there are diverse views when it comes to gender diversity. Many of the MNCs are quite vocal and they have policies in place to drive forward gender diversity.  The response from SMEs and other companies, however, is less positive. Many see embracing gender diversity as synonymous with incurring extra expenses like the backlash over extending maternity and paternity leave.  There is a lack of awareness or familiarity with the benefits that gender diversity can deliver to business, so that’s what we need to share with the business community.


So we are looking at big challenges – we are looking at the Greater Bay area, smart cities, innovation. Gender diversity is an inherent part of these issues if we want to make Hong Kong much more dynamic and fit for purpose for the future.  All these women who are not in work – they are untapped potential for the city.  Let’s get more women in work and be more nimble and creative in how we approach work and embrace all of that talent because there will be GDP increase from having greater women’s participation in the workforce.     


Our research highlights that unless the diversity agenda is led from the top, alongside a culture of inclusion, then little headway in women’s representation is made.  Do you have any advice for the leadership of companies as to why this should be a focus for them?


FN: "Once companies recognise that having greater gender diversity is good for business, then they have to put in place a plan to get there and make key strategic decisions to achieve it. As with any other strategic focus of a business, it needs to be right at the top of the agenda of senior management. They can put in place changing work policies around promotion, recruitment and flexible work among others, as well as setting any targets and strategies.


Leaving aside the diversity element, which comprises the policies and practices, I want to turn to talk about inclusion, which is made up of the everyday behaviours that create supportive and thriving working cultures that are inclusive of everybody. Inclusion also has to be set from the top looking at how to make everyday behaviours friendly to women and tackle biases.  For example that is why we have our Male Allies programme – having senior male business leaders talk about the benefits of gender diversity sets an powerful tone across the whole organisation if it’s being led by men.  It moves the whole gender diversity issue from a women’s issue to a business issue, an issue for men and women, as well as an issue for the whole of society. That’s why it’s so powerful and that’s why we’ve launched the programme – we are seeing incredible take up and really fantastic results."   


What typically tends to be the trigger to get men engaged with the diversity agenda?


FN: "It’s a mixture – some of them have daughters; others have heard about the issues, looked at their stats and recognised the business case. There are different perspectives, but each of them is committed to change – they see it as a societal issue of men and women working together because men also benefit from gender diversity and the practices that we put in place for women. They want to have more competitive businesses and they recognise that to do that they need to embrace the way the world is changing and get more women at the table."             


Any other points you wish to discuss?


FN: "In the last year we are seeing more discussion around these issues.  Our submission to CEDAW - the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – we have sent that into the government.  We know it was considered before the policy address. We are actively doing a lot of advocacy.  There is a lot more of traction and debate. 


We have to make the data visible before we can tackle the issue, so this study and others like it – are really important."


Return to the study key findings page below:

"We see those gender stereotypes at work and across society here where women are pigeonholed in those traditional roles."

"We know that policies that support working mothers and fathers lead to greater diversity in the workplace, which in turn leads to better business outcomes.  

The aim should be for all to thrive in the workplace."

"We need better education amongst employers, more awareness of the benefits of having greater diversity in the workforce...

For that to happen we need positive reinforcement from the government and the community that mothers can simultaneously thrive in their careers and as parents, not an either or."

"I think traits of ambition, tenacity, resilience, agility that are really helpful when you rise up a corporate ladder, I think they’re there, but perhaps young people are seeking a less traditional path to success." 

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