“We have to do more”: Time to “ReThink” gender in the workplace

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“We have to be better, we have to do more,” said Christian Bergenstråhle, the general manager of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong. HT’s previous Leader of the Week, activist and writer Beth Kong reflects on Hong Kong’s gender segregated workplace.

In recent years, significant focus and energy have been devoted to diversity and inclusion in the workplace, but it remains an issue in offices across industries. On 5-6 October, ReThink, Hong Kong’s largest event devoted to sustainable development, addressed the obstacles companies face in creating a diverse and inclusive workforce as well as how to overcome the challenges of integration, developing personal and corporate purpose that has scalable impacts.

In Hong Kong, the female labour force participation rate in 2020 was 54.2%, which is a significant increase from 47.9% in 1997, according to the Census and Statistics Department. More and more women are entering the workforce, slowly catching up with the number of men.

Image: CSD

While women make up most of the entry-level group, few make it to the C-Suite. In 2020, the proportion of women in senior management roles on Hang Seng Index-listed companies in Hong Kong was 13.6%, which was a 3% decrease in 2019, far behind our regional neighbours of Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, according to a study by The Women’s Foundation. 

Hong Kong also was one of the few markets where the number of all-male boards rose in 2020, according to investment research and index provider MCSI. About 37% of 81 MSCI All Country World Index (ACWI) companies in Hong Kong and 29% of the 617 index companies in China lacked women as directors, the study found. 

“Inclusion in companies is still a work in progress,” said Fariha Salma Deiya Bakar, the executive officer of the Institute for Youth Sustainability Leadership in Hang Seng University of Hong Kong, at the talk Beyond the Policy – How Does an Inclusive Workplace Come to Life?.

This is shocking news and a significant sign for us to rethink our workplace.   

Bakar (second from left) and other speakers in the conference. (Image: Beth Kong)

For Hong Kong to end gender-based disparity in the workforce, coordinated cooperation between business leaders and policymakers will play a critical role in eliminating inequalities and bias; and ensuring Hong Kong keeps pace with other financial sectors, such as the US and the UK, and retain its title as Asia’s international financial hub. The CEO and founder of Encompass HK, also one of the panelists, Benita Chick advised large companies to take advantage of its resources. Large corporations could hire professionals and build an effective D&I strategy to foster a company culture where every voice is welcome, heard, and respected. 

As much as employers try to make changes, it is still not enough to truly achieve diversity and inclusion in the workplace. That said, individuals should also unlearn and relearn our perceptions. In order to be a good ally and alleviate such issues, here are a few things men can do in the workplace, according to Brian Henderson, the founder of Whole Business Wellness: 

  • Understand what women experience and men’s own privilege;
  • Provide comfort to women who experience discrimination in workplace; and
  • Help them feel heard and provide them opportunities to speak rather than asking them to just pour coffee and jot notes.

Collectively, if we as a society are serious about addressing gender inequality in the workplace, then it may be time to acknowledge the correlation between what women are facing and the reason behind such a situation. We should begin to challenge the conservative conscious bias people have, especially when women are the only ones affected by these workplace policies. The normative assumptions about men and women’s place in society should not be reinforced.

This is part of a series of articles on ReThink 2021. Check out our other coverage.