Breaking down biases and helping women who work

March 08, 2022 10:05
Photo: Reuters

International Women’s day, on 8 March, is a day to reflect on and celebrate all women and their achievements worldwide. In Hong Kong SAR, we don’t have to look far for women to celebrate. Hong Kong born and raised Siobhan Haughey represented Hong Kong at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where she won a silver medal in the 200-metre freestyle and 100-metre freestyle. She became the first Hong Kong swimmer to win an Olympic medal and the first Hong Kong athlete to win two Olympic medals in any sport. A cause for celebration and jubilation all round, as these medals symbolise not just personal wins for Haughey, but also wins for Hong Kong and wins for women!

Female role models offer inspiration for future generations of women – not least in the world of work. According to 2021 research and statistics compiled by the Women’s Commission of the HKSAR Government, improvements in the level of educational attainment and increases in training opportunities have meant that women in Hong Kong have become more economically independent and the proportion of female managers and administrators has increased in the past decade.

Employment and anti-discrimination laws have also become kinder to women in recent years. Since December 2020, paid maternity leave under the Employment Ordinance has been extended from 10 weeks to 14 weeks. In June 2021, the Sex Discrimination Ordinance was amended to protect breastfeeding women against discrimination, harassment and victimisation in the employment context as well as in other sectors (e.g., the provision of goods, facilities and services and education). Consequently, female employees are entitled to longer maternity leave and better supported for breastfeeding on their return to work, as employers are encouraged to ensure private breastfeeding facilities in the workplace and accommodate breastfeeding breaks during the working day.

Despite such advances and improvements, the employment situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated owing to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only have there been job losses, but intermittent school closures and the resulting extended periods of online learning for children in Hong Kong have piled the pressure on working parents, who have had to juggle carrying on with their day jobs (working remotely in many cases) whilst supervising their children with home learning. Although school has continued online, any parent will agree that children cannot be left exclusively to their devices when learning online, particularly younger primary children. The burden of helping with home school has tended to fall disproportionately on women, even when both parents work. Reasons may vary from household to household, but arguably it derives from the pervasive cultural and societal expectation that women tend to the home while men work.

On the bright sight, remote working during the pandemic has given birth to a new world of work. As a result, the introduction of agile and flexible working policies by employers has become the “new norm”. Recruiters report a significant increase in demand amongst job applicants for flexible working conditions and locations. There is hope therefore that agile working arrangements as a result of Covid-19 will continue and enable more women to balance work and family.

What more can we all do in 2022 to break down biases and help women who work? In the short term, whilst online learning is expected to continue in Hong Kong, employers could be compassionate to their employees with children (men and women alike) by offering more flexible working arrangements (e.g. adjusted working hours during the school day) to accommodate those required to assist with home learning. As a society, we could also challenge gender norms and stereotypes by encouraging fairer sharing of responsibilities outside of work. Especially when both parents work, there is no excuse for dads not to also get involved in sharing the supervision of home learning!

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Head of Hong Kong Employment & Incentives, Linklaters