13 November 2015

For women, getting to the top is not easy – but it can be done

Diana Cesar, Chief Executive, Hong Kong, HSBC
(This article was first published on 13 November 2015 by Hong Kong Economic Journal)

When it comes to gender parity, Hong Kong is one of the most equal societies in Asia. Yet even here, the corporate world remains predominantly a man’s world.

Changing that – getting more women not only to stay in the workforce but also to advance all the way to the C-Suite – is not just fair. It also makes good economic sense. And it requires input from companies, society, and from women themselves.

Of course, we have made a lot of progress over the past few decades. The female proportion of Hong Kong’s labour force is far higher than it once was. Women are well represented in the civil service. They account for about half of university enrollments.

And yet, women hold just 11.1 per cent of directorships in Hong Kong’s top companies, according to a report by Community Business, an NGO. Only eleven of the LegCo’s 70 members are women. All the judges of the Court of Final Appeal are men. And median wages for women are significantly below those for men– in part because many do not stay in the workforce long enough to advance to well-paid, senior positions.

It is not easy to change long-held social mindsets. Women in Hong Kong may have more opportunities than those in many other Asian countries, but they are still expected to balance their work life with looking after their spouse, their children, their parents and their in-laws.

Over the years, I have seen many capable female colleagues pull back from their career trajectories, and not progress as much as they could have, because they were concerned that they would not be able to give as much energy, time and effort as was needed for the path ahead.

It is often the case that women have to go many more miles to get their voices and viewpoints heard. Generally, that means needing to be more convincing, and well prepared with research and data when it comes to promoting a concept or pushing an agenda. It also means we have to spend more time than our male colleagues canvassing and consulting stakeholders to convince them of our ideas and proposals.

We have to do all this while striking a delicate balance: While we need to be vocal and visible, we need to do so without being branded as “difficult.” This is a tough balance for any manager to strike (men included) – but it is especially difficult for women, and even more so for women in Asia, where women are often expected to be particularly polite and self-effacing.

The good news is that, as long as you have a positive and energetic spirit, these challenges can be overcome.

The other good news is that things are getting better.

My own career path, and those of several other female senior executives at HSBC, is proof that women can attain senior positions in Hong Kong, even in traditionally male-dominated sectors and organisations.

In part, this is because of a growing realization that enabling women to participate more fully in the workforce is not just a matter of social fairness: it is crucial for societies like Hong Kong, which are ageing rapidly. Just recently, both McKinsey and the Asian Development Bank have published research showing that more gender equality in the workforce could substantially boost economic output around the globe.

What is more, there are many ways that companies in Hong Kong can help women manage their work and private responsibilities, and to keep climbing the corporate ladder.

Flexible working hours, remote-working arrangements and the option to return gradually back to work after maternity leave – all these make a big difference to working mothers.

Hong Kong companies are increasingly issuing such policies. This is good news. However, to make these policies really effective, companies also need to ensure they are actually implemented. They need to establish a corporate culture where it is acceptable for colleagues to actually take advantage of flexible hours, for example.

Employers can be, and should be, more flexible and creative in their approach to helping women pursue their careers. They shouldn’t worry that any flexibility will be exploited: It hasn’t been in my own experience.

As we transition towards greater gender diversity in the workplace, quotas and self-imposed targets to ensure a certain proportion of female representation may have some value as an interim measure but I don’t believe they are the long term solution. Ultimately, candidates should be hired and promoted purely on ability, performance and track-record. Gender shouldn’t be a criterion at all.

Finally, remember that women need to do their part when it comes to pursuing their goals. My advice to you is this:

  • Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts, to ask, to be vocal.
  • Back up the points you want to make in business meetings with strong objective research and factual data, and talk to as many stakeholders as possible.
  • Stay positive. When confronted with obstacles, keep a cool mind and don’t take things personally. Find something that let you take a step back from issues.
  • Believe in yourself: remind yourself that you have the same abilities as the gentleman across the table from you in the business meeting.

It may be your employer’s responsibility to facilitate gender equality. But it’s your responsibility to pursue your ambitions.

For women, getting to the top is not easy – but it can be done (4-page PDF 145KB)