24 October 2016
Rose Lee (L) and Marjorie Yang are among Fortune magazine's Asia-Pacific list of "Most Powerful Women". Photo: HKEJ
Rose Lee (L) and Marjorie Yang are among Fortune magazine's Asia-Pacific list of "Most Powerful Women". Photo: HKEJ

How banks have taken the lead in empowering women executives

According to some unofficial surveys, many readers don’t prefer women on the covers of financial magazines.

There are at least three reasons cited for that.

First, there is a perception — however mistaken it might be — that there aren’t too many successful women out there who have both brains and beauty.

Then there is the argument that female executives are not usually in the top ranks of their companies, and so their stories might be less interesting.

And lastly, even some feminists denounce the women covers, accusing the publications of propagating stereotypes or making a token gesture once a year.

Against this backdrop, it was interesting to see the latest cover story of Fortune magazine, where they featured the “Most Powerful Women”.

The story highlighted the achievements of 51 women, including top corporate executives and entertainers.

The list included people like GM CEO Mary Barra, Pepsi boss Indra Nooyi, Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer, HP top honcho Meg Whitman and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

And there was also Kathleen Kennedy — a former secretary of Steven Spielberg who is the producer of the latest Star Wars 7 movie; and pop sensation Taylor Swift.

Twenty-seven CEOs on the list together controlled enterprises with a market value of US$1 trillion.

It marks a drastic improvement from earlier years. There are currently 19 women CEOs at the helm of Fortune 500 firms, compared to just two when the survey was created in 1998.

Also, the women are spread across almost every industry.

Meanwhile, in the Asia-Pacific list, two Hong Kong businesswomen made it to the league.

They are Rose Lee Wai-man, chief executive and deputy chairman of Hang Seng Bank (00011.HK), and Marjorie Yang Mun-tak, chairperson of textile and apparel manufacturer Esquel Group.

Among the 25 women short-listed in Asia, we found six of them were from the financial sector. Among those six were two from leading Indian banks and one from Korea.

In Hong Kong, HSBC (00005.HK) has been trying to promote more women to senior positions. In the most recent move, Diana Cesar has been elevated as chief executive of the bank’s Hong Kong unit. 

Cesar, who was previously the head of retail banking and wealth management for the unit, will report to the bank’s Greater China chief executive Helen Wong Bik-kuen.

Together with Standard Chartered Bank (02888.HK) chief executive May Tan and Hang Seng Bank CEO Rose Lee, we now have women present at the top in three major banks in the city.

Although they are yet to make it through to their firms’ core boards, they are good role models for other women executives in Hong Kong and also show the way for other industries in the city.

Among the 50 major local blue chips, with the exception of Betty Yuen So Siu-mei from CLP Holdings, there are not too many female executives who made it to the top of their firms.

In the case of property developers, most of the companies seem to be following the Chinese tradition of passing on a business from father to son.

As for H-share entities, we found little presence of women in seven insurance companies, five major banks, and three oil and telecom giants.

According to the “Women on Boards: Hang Seng Index 2015″ report from Community Business, a local non-profit organization, female directors among the HSI constituent stocks were 9.6 percent in 2014, compared with 8.9 percent in 2008.

It was flat trajectory, and significantly lagging behind global counterparts, the organization said.

Among the 50 index constituents, only three companies have four female directors, according to Community Business. They were Hang Seng Bank, MTR Corp. (00066.HK) and HSBC Holdings.

It is worth noting that Standard Chartered Bank, the sponsor of the research, also had four female directors.

As for when the city will break the curse of a maximum of four women directors on board, we’ll just have to wait and watch.

[Chinese version中文版]

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EJ Insight writer

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