Equal Opportunities Commission



Luncheon Harcourt Room, The Hong Kong Club
Organised by Hong Kong Democratic Foundation

“Challenges Faced by the EOC in Hong Kong” — Speech by Mrs Patricia Chu Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission


Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to join this luncheon today and share with you the challenges faced by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), and our strategies in meeting these challenges. 2004 is a significant year for the EOC, as we look back on what we have achieved in the past eight years and plan for the future. The strategy we are adopting is: Consolidation, Capacity Building and Communication.


The EOC was established by statute in 1996 to administer three anti-discrimination laws which prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender, pregnancy, marital status, disability and family status. The EOC has a number of functions. We undertake investigation, conciliate complaints, provide legal assistance and litigation support in strategic cases where conciliation had failed, and promote equal opportunities through public education, research and training.

In the past 8 years, we have witnessed significant changes in many spheres of life as regards equal opportunities in Hong Kong. This has been made possible as a result of our work in complaint handling, our court actions and our public education efforts. We have been able to help the public to reduce some deep-rooted stereotypes, and to assist organizations to remove some outdated policies and practices. The public is becoming more and more receptive to the principle of equal opportunities. In a survey on public perception regarding the work of the EOC commissioned in 2003, 92.7% of the respondents said that they had heard of the EOC (as compared to 86.7% in 1998), 97.3% felt the EOC deserve their support (as compared to 97.6% in 1998) and 84% thought the EOC had succeeded in enhancing the public's understanding of discrimination and inequality (as compared to 82.2% in 1998).

While we find some comfort in what we have achieved so far, there is no room for complacency. Despite the progress that has been made, the EOC is still facing various challenges in different aspects of our work. To name a few, these include misconceptions and conflicting expectations, attitudinal stereotyping, systemic barriers, implementation of the Racial Discrimination Ordinance when enacted, the Commission's credibility and public accountability.


Misconceptions of equal opportunities

The concept of equal opportunities is still relatively new in Hong Kong. Some people have the misconception that promoting equal opportunities means denying individual differences and treating every one in the same way. However, what we advocate is not that everyone is the same, but rather, equal opportunity to access. Anti-discrimination legislation levels the playing field for the individual, and provides him or her with the right to counter unfair situations and enjoy equal access to government programmes, to education, employment, accommodation, medical care and other services.

We advocate for the acceptance of individual differences, and the creation of a social environment where everyone is respected and supported to develop his or her potential.

Public perceptions of the EOC's role

The EOC has been aware of conflicting expectations and different public perceptions of our role. Earlier this year, we conducted a Survey on Stakeholders' Perceptions and Expectations on the Role and the Work of the EOC, involving NGOs, advocacy and opinion groups, political parties, public organizations and professional bodies etc.

While about half of the respondents (51%) found the statutory power of the EOC adequate and 8% consider it "more than adequate", 41% considered our powers "less than adequate". Views towards the pace of development of equal opportunities in Hong Kong are also mixed. Almost half of the respondents regarded the progress as reasonable, whereas another half regarded it too slow. How to manage expectations of different groups of people and to carry the community forward to achieve equal opportunity, is a challenge for the EOC.

Conflicting expectations

As you can see, there is a fundamental expectation gap in relation to the role of the EOC. To some community groups, they expect the EOC to act as an advocate to eliminate all forms of inequality and to take sides of the aggrieved persons in complaint handling procedures; whereas others perceive EO laws as interfering existing norms and practices. At best, they feel the EOC should restrict itself to the three pieces of legislation, and should take a neutral stance in handling complaints. In managing these conflicting expectations, we have to spell out our long term vision and mission of eliminating discrimination and fostering equal opportunities through education. At the same time, we need to explain clearly the statutory power vested in the Commission in regards to investigation, conciliation and litigation which is restricted to sex, disability and family status discrimination. We also need to emphasize the importance for the EOC to adopt impartiality in handling complaints, whilst providing assistance to concerned parties to make informed decisions and then, act.

Another example to illustrate contradictory demands is the controversy about the height of the raised kerb among different target groups. Wheelchair users are of the view that they have difficulties crossing the street if the kerb is raised too high. On the other hand, people with visual impairment say they feel unsafe, if the kerb is not high enough for them to detect the segregation between the road and the pavement. In handling this type of conflicting views, our role is to explain the equal opportunities laws to all parties concerned and help them to understand the concept of reasonable accommodation, with a view to arrive at a compromise. On this particular issue, I am glad to say the Transport Department has accepted our advice and now the proposed height of the raised kerb is agreeable to both groups.


Baseline survey in 2002

To better plan our education work, we need to understand the prevailing attitudes among the younger generation towards gender, disability and family status. The results of two EOC baseline surveys released in 2002 show that gender stereotyping is common among students, and this has a profound influence on the way students think and act. While both male and female students accepted that women could have a career, they expected men to be the major breadwinner in the family, while they thought women were more suitable for the care of young children. Notably young men surveyed were more rigid and inflexible in their definition of masculinity, restricting themselves to far fewer options in behavior and career choices. For example, the notions that sons should share the housework, men could have women bosses, husbands could be "househusbands" and girls could initiate dating were all out of the question with the boys, but were acceptable to the girls.

Occupational stereotyping was extremely prevalent among both male and female students. When they were asked to imagine being the opposite sex and then choose a suitable career, there were marked changes in their personal choice of careers. Although they agreed that most occupations were suitable for either gender, stereotypical thinking still dominated career preferences. Employment in the arts and humanities, early childhood education, nursing, fine arts and dancing were thought to be appropriate for girls, whereas careers in science, IT, engineering, sports and technical work were considered appropriate for boys.

The research also looked into family issues. Results indicated that the young respondents found the re-constituted family, that is, amalgamation of two families into a new one least acceptable, followed by male-headed single parent family, female-headed single parent family, family with the mother in mainland China and age-discrepant parents. Students were most acceptive of classmates coming from a family where the marriage was intact.

On disability issues, the students tended to pay attention only to the constraints and limitations of persons with a disability, who were perceived as deviant, accident prone and appropriate for repetitive work. The characteristics of a minority of people with a disability were taken to be stereotypical representation of people with a disability in general.

The survey results show that stereotypical assumptions are prevalent in young people's minds. They are affected by what they learn at home, in school, in the community and, of course, from the media. The EOC is concerned about the findings because the perceptions students hold influence their way of relating to people, their interest and career choices, affecting their economic status, achievement and public participation as well as the overall cohesiveness of a community. To change their attitude is a challenge for the EOC.

Changing bias

To eliminate students' stereotypical attitudes and eventually to change behaviour, the EOC has been making continuous efforts to organize activities and programmes which enable them to have more in-depth understanding of issues of stereotyping and discrimination. These activities include e.g. interactive drama performances in primary schools to help students understand equal opportunities concepts, and accept people with disabilities as well as people with non-traditional family roles. In 2003 alone, the EOC staged 250 drama performances for 45,000 students.

In addition, in order to widen career choices for students, the EOC invited outstanding individuals from a wide spectrum of professions to act as mentors to connect with secondary students in our "Career Challenge" programme. About 1,000 secondary students have participated in small group visits or large group sharing sessions. These young people now recognize that their horizons should not be limited by stereotypical assumptions such as gender or disability. For many, it is their first time to realize that career choices can be based on interest and ability.

These educational programmes are all process-oriented. The participants can interact with the stage actors or their mentors during the learning process, as they can reflect on their previous misconceptions and form new, non-discriminatory beliefs. The outcomes become sustainable when the participants have gone through in-depth reflections and discussions.

Integration into school curriculum

Another important means to change students' attitudes is to integrate equal opportunities principles into the school curriculum to cultivate respect for diversity. The EOC is currently exploring effective ways to collaborate with the Curriculum Development Institute and the Women's Commission to ensure the principles of equal opportunities and gender mainstreaming are integrated into the school curriculum. Initiatives include reviewing the existing curriculum to identify areas for improvement, regular meetings with publishers to enable direct dialogue and input in the review of textbooks, and advising on teacher training, such as development of E-learning packages to allow teachers to learn the subjects at any time and in any place convenient to them.


Our experience show that very often people are not aware of deep-seated prejudices embedded in systems, which have been in use for many years. Apart from addressing the issues on a one-to-one complaint case basis, there is always scope to approach the issue in a more systemic manner so as to effect changes at a policy level, to remove barriers and prevent discrimination.

Access to insurance services

One example is access to insurance services. The EOC has received complaints from persons with a disability or chronic illness that they have experienced discrimination in their dealings with insurance companies. They were refused cover, some premiums were higher due to their disability, or that their pre-existing conditions were excluded from coverage. The Disability Discrimination Ordinances gives persons with a disability legal right and they should not be denied insurance, or treated less favourably, unless such treatment can be defended under the law.

To promote understanding of equal opportunities issues, and examine alternatives to exiting practices in the insurance industry, the EOC released a discussion paper in December 2002 and invited the public and the insurance industry to provide views on insurance issues. As a result, the Hong Kong Federation of Insurers, in consultation with the EOC, is now preparing a set of Insurance Guidelines for practitioners in the insurance industry. We believe that non-discriminatory approaches could be developed to respond to new market needs and expectations for the benefit of both insurers and consumers. This not only makes a good business sense, it will also result in fewer complaint cases involving insurance practices.

Accessibility for persons with disability

Another issue affecting many persons with a disability is accessibility of buildings and public transport services. Among non-employment related complaints lodged under the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, accessibility accounts for about a third of the cases. These involve accessibility by wheelchair users to buildings, which are often restricted by narrow doorways, steep flight of steps or broken paving stones. We believe that making a physical environment accessible is essential for people with disabilities to attend school, go to work, and enjoy their social, cultural, economic and political rights. The Commission has been advocating the concept of universal design, and that is, to make buildings and transportation services accessible to all.

Recently, there is increasing concern over accessibility for the persons with a disability. While the EOC will continue to handle complaint cases as they appear, there is a case for an in-depth study into the accessibility issues, involving various government departments, professional bodies, the private and NGO sectors to aim at mainstreaming accessibility, and ultimately creating a barrier-free environment for all. The EOC is currently at a preliminary stage of examining this possibility.


We understand that a consultation paper on Racial Discrimination will be published by the government in September this year. One of the recommendations in the paper is to entrust the administration of this piece of new legislation to the EOC. We consider this to be a logical move though this will be a challenge for the Commission - in terms of preparatory work and actual implementation. These involve: developing expertise on the subject, understanding the problems faced by minority groups, building network and partnerships with new stakeholder groups, issuing code of practices, planning for launching of publicity and public education programmes, designing relevant training material, etc. etc. In meeting all these challenges, we need to be provided with a reasonable lead-time, adequate resources and support from all sectors.


Rebuilding credibility

The incident that led to the controversy last year did affect the credibility of the EOC. Further to deliberations at the Legco Home Affairs Panel, and the government's final decision to set up an independent panel of inquiry into the incident, we have pledged to co-operate with the Panel. We look forward to an open, fair, credible and evidence-based inquiry, with a view to draw a close to the issue, and to leave the EOC to return to its normal course and concentrate on its efforts to proceed with its work.

Meanwhile, against this backdrop, the EOC has been making extra efforts throughout the past few months to rebuild its credibility. Two internal reviews - one on the role and organizational structure of the EOC and the other on HRM are near completion. I hope the recommendations will provide a clear direction and lay the foundation for continuous improvement. On the operational side, we have continued to deliver our services to meet the needs of the community. We have collaborated with various stakeholder groups in sponsoring or organizing activities on equal opportunity themes; responded to increasing requests for training and consultancy work from both private and public corporations, investigated complaints, facilitated conciliation and provided legal assistance to bring cases to court. We have paid more effort to be transparent and accountable to the public, by conducting public briefings, answering press enquiries and providing statistics and details of work.

Despite less favourable media reports on issues related to the EOC, e.g. reappointment of the EOC members, the query on the independence of the Panel of Inquiry etc., from time to time, I am glad to say that there are signs that EOC itself and its work is gradually regaining the confidence of the public. Feedbacks from various quarters have been generally positive, and the amount of public support we have received is encouraging.

Public accountability

Like any other publicly funded body, the EOC is accountable to the public. In the years to come, it has to manage an increasing workload, face budget cuts and maintain its credibility. We will adopt a positive stance in meeting these challenges by reprioritising our work, streamlining our work procedures and restructuring the Commission to deliver more cost effective services. We also recognize the need for closer monitoring of performance with assessment on output and outcome, better human resource and financial management, all of which are the basis for effective corporate management.


I have shared with you the challenges faced by the EOC, and I assure you we shall rise to the occasion. To sum up, our strategy is to adopt a 3C approach: Consolidation, Capacity Building and Communication.


8 years on, our efforts in conducting the overall Review allow us to look at our current roles and functions, work priorities, efficiency and effectiveness in order to fulfill our mission. These are attempts to map out future directions, with enhanced corporate governance to deliver our targets. We believe that based on the solid foundation built in the past, we can reaffirm our vision and mission and consolidate the work and credibility of the Commission as an independent, effective and accountable public body to uphold the principle of equal opportunity and eliminate discrimination.

Capacity Building:

A cornerstone to consolidation is the capacity of the organization to deliver its services as pledged. The review on HRM policies, practices and procedures is a self-improvement initiative with the aim to identify HRM issues that need to be addressed. Such a move would develop an able, committed and productive team, to deliver our services more effectively and efficiently to the public. Upon completion of the review we will follow up on the recommendations to enable the EOC to build up its capacity to meet the challenges ahead of us.


Both internal and external communications are essential elements of good corporate governance. Views of all stakeholders, including EOC members and staff, NGOS, concern groups, private and public organizations provide us with insightful ideas to enhance our work. The EOC's goal is to promote equal opportunities and eliminate discrimination. This is not an easy task, and the EOC cannot work on its own. We are committed to enhancing our services to the public and strengthening partnerships with our stakeholders through open dialogue and effective communication. We can only achieve the vision of promoting equal opportunity and creating a level playing field for all in collaboration with all those who share this dream.

I look forward to your continuing support for the work of the EOC. Let's face the challenges together to make Hong Kong a better place for all, and Asia's World City that all of us are proud of.

Thank you.