On March 8, International Women’s Day was celebrated around town. It’s always nice to have an excuse to get together with friends for a party but is it really anything more than that?
After all, in Hong Kong, at least, girls can have every expectation of equal opportunities at school and thereafter to be able to embark on a wide variety of careers.
In this kind of mood it’s easy to overlook how recent even this amount of progress has been.
For example, it was only in 1948 that England’s renowned Cambridge University began to award women degrees.
Before then, female students might attend the lectures and take the exams but they would only receive a certificate as opposed to a proper degree.
My high school English teacher fell into that category and she was in her 80s when Cambridge decided to right this wrong.
She described the touching scene as the group of elderly pioneers were clapped through the streets of the town as they marched in procession to the ceremony to confer their long denied degrees.
University of Hong Kong may have done better, admitting female undergraduates in the 1920s, but the Legislative Council, for example, was very slow to catch up with equal treatment for the half of the human race who happen not to be men.
Ellen Li Tsao Sau-kwan was the first female member of the Legislative Council appointed in 1966.
She used her position to advance women’s causes, notably the abolition of concubinage.
She founded the Family Planning Association and also the Chinese Women’s Club through which I was privileged to meet her regularly.
By then, she was over 90 but feisty and forthright as ever.
I loved chatting to her about past days, although I didn’t tell her about the file I had seen in which a long ago expatriate male civil servant had testily written “Ellen Li and her band of she-hyenas are due to come and see me”. Charming!
So, have we now reached the sunny uplands where women have achieved completely equal opportunities to strive in the workplace and receive the just reward for their efforts? Unfortunately, not.
Society, and, it has to be admitted, sometimes women themselves conspire to throw difficulties in their way.
Physical appearance looms unduly large in the minds of working women and in those around them.
A recent survey by The Women’s Foundation and Edelman Intelligence found that 62 percent of women felt discriminated against at work based on their looks and 25 percent of men aged 31 to 40 believed that a woman’s success is based on her looks.
The extent to which objectification and sexism are accepted in Hong Kong society can be seen in the way the Cantonese term 事業線, meaning career line, is used by the local tabloids and in social media to refer to a woman’s cleavage.
The Women’s Foundation’s motto is “Research, Collaborate, Change”. I am a member of its board and I feel honored to be part of its meaningful work.
This year, the Foundation decided to focus attention on the demeaning phenomenon of the “career line” as the basis for a new campaign tackling sexism in the workplace.
The campaign kicked off with a social experiment which saw the launch of a pop-up booth located near HKU which ostensibly offered cleavage-enhancing plastic surgery to boost women’s career prospects.
On International Women’s Day, the truth was revealed: this was actually a stunt to ignite a conversation around the topic of 事業線 prior to the Foundation launching its MyRealCareerLine campaign which saw a line-up of local female icons, including Olympic swimmer Stephanie Au and journalist and blogger Bud Ming, talking about their real “career lines”: the skills and personal qualities which led to their success.
The aim is to change mindsets and bring about change beyond International Women’s Day with both the media and general population giving up the use of this damaging phrase.
You can find out more and support the campaign at www.realcareerline.hk.
We should never forget our debt of gratitude to those who won for us women the rights we now enjoy.
“Courageous” is an adjective often used but I am not sure that it would have applied to Dr. Ellen Li.
When I knew her she seemed to be blessed with a superb self-assurance, not to be confused with arrogance.
What marked her out also was a willingness not to be swept along in the tide of conventional thinking but rather to take a clear eye and dispassionate view of the problems that afflicted society.
In her memoir, she tells a story about the American Consulate’s party to which members of Legislative Council were invited without their spouses.
Her appearance led to confusion and a Vice-Consul telling her “Mrs. Li, ladies have not been invited to this function”.
To which she replied “as sweetly as I could manage”, “I’m no lady, I am a Council member”.
Some 50 years later, her example can still teach us how to put gender in its proper place!
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