Equal Opportunities Commission



Roundtable on Gender Equality Beijing, People's Republic of China
Organised by The Ford Foundation and Wellesley College

Remarks by Mr LAM Woon-kwong, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission


(Remarks delivered in Putonghua)

Dr. De Silva; Esteemed panelists; Honored guests;

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me. It is a pleasure to be here to discuss the work of the Equal Opportunities Commission of Hong Kong in promoting gender equality.

Sex Discrimination Case

In preparing my remarks for today, I kept thinking back to one of the first cases that the EOC took legal action on during my tenure as Chairperson. In the case, a female secondary school teacher alleged that she faced sex discrimination because the school required female teachers to only wear skirts and dresses to work. On the other hand, the attire requirement on the male teachers was less stringent. For wearing pantsuits, she was publicly criticized and humiliated in front of her students. She filed a complaint with the EOC, and finally won a settlement after we issued legal proceedings on her behalf.

Traditional and Attitudinal Barriers

I remember thinking, when I first read about the case, that it was quite symptomatic of the challenges that lie ahead for Hong Kong. While the city’s women can mostly enjoy the same rights as men, traditional thinking about gender remains deeply embedded, often surfacing to hold women back. Hong Kong, after all, is a majority-Chinese city, and Confucian values such as the doctrine of “Three obediences” – “obey your father as a daughter; obey your husband as a wife; and obey your son as a widow.” – is still an ingrained part of the general mindset, except perhaps for the younger generation. These thoughts form an invisible framework upon which gender roles are assigned, employment opportunities are made, and promotion prospects are based.

The EOC’s role, then, is not simply about dismantling institutional barriers to gender equality through investigation and litigation. A large part of our work is about getting to the root of discrimination by changing society’s way of thinking.

Situation of Women in Hong Kong

Unequal Pay:
I will admit that we have a long way to go on this front. Though gender inequality in Hong Kong is less obvious, it is no less damaging. On average, a woman makes about 80 cents for every dollar made by a man.

This gap exists across all industries, but is more blatant in female-dominated jobs such as social services or retail.

The gender wage gap in low-pay jobs is chronic, but female degree holders also face significant pay disparities when compared to male ones. In 2010, female holders of post-secondary degrees earned about 71 percent of what their male counterparts made (HK$20,000 vs. HK$28,000).

Low Representation at the Top:
And although women make up a larger percentage of university students in Hong Kong since 1996 (about 55% of enrolled students are female), they remain underrepresented in traditionally “male” disciplines such as engineering and the sciences.

Women make up nearly half of the workforce, but they take up only around one-third of manager, administrator, and professional positions. In 2011, only 9% of board directors of Hang Seng-listed companies are women. This figure rose slightly to 10.3% in 2012. But if we take out the wives and daughters of the board chairmen, the number of female board directors would fall to about 6 to 7%.

We also see that women still spend triple the time that men do on unpaid household activities. Indeed, the reality that family care responsibilities still fall largely on women’s shoulders may be one of the largest obstacles to female advancement.

Pregnancy and Family Status Discrimination:
In a survey from the office space provider Regus last year, only 32% of Hong Kong’s employer respondents were willing to hire working mothers, lower than the global average of 36%. Pregnancy discrimination is one of the most common complaints we receive at the EOC.

When we urge employers to provide greater family care support, some say that Hong Kong’s women already have access to affordable childcare assistance in the form of foreign domestic workers. However, this does not help lower income women, who cannot afford them. As for the working mothers who could afford them, I think Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton professor and former Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department, put it nicely in her recent Atlantic article: “I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults.”

Many professional women, feeling that they are forced to choose between work and family, end up selecting the latter, draining our female talent. We saw an extreme case of this at the EOC when a single mother who worked for a financial institution asked for time off because her son was hospitalized with a sudden illness. The company gave her one day. But after she asked for more time off when her son’s condition deteriorated, her supervisor bluntly told her she had to choose between work and family and denied her request. She resigned, and brought the case to us for family status discrimination. We were able to conciliate the dispute.

So we are ticking all the boxes in Hong Kong: There is a gender pay gap; there is horizontal and vertical job segregation; there is both a glass ceiling and a sticky floor; there is a leaky pipeline; there is a motherhood penalty.

Role of the EOC

So what has the EOC done to address these issues?

Hong Kong has both international and local obligations.
One important way of putting gender equality into practice is through the prevention of gender discrimination by law. To this end, the Sex Discrimination Ordinance Cap.480 (“SDO”) was enacted in 1995.

One main feature of the SDO is that it provides for an enforcement mechanism so that people suffering from gender discrimination and sexual harassment have an enforceable legal right to put a stop to it. The scope of the SDO covers many major aspects of the everyday life of an individual.

Under the SDO, it is unlawful to discriminate on the ground of sex, marital status, or pregnancy, in the terms and conditions of employment, education, or access to benefits, facilities or services.

The EOC was established as an independent, statutory body under the SDO in 1996. We have 2 main powers as I mentioned previously: To implement the anti-discrimination ordinances via complaints handling and legal action, as well as a persuasive function to promote equal opportunities for all through public education, research, and policy advocacy.

Using our mandate to investigate and conciliate complaints, we handle over 16,000 enquiries and around 1,000 complaints last year. In the year 2011/12, complaints under the SDO made up around one-third of all complaints handled. The majority of these were related to pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment in employment. When we receive a complaint, we investigate into the matter and, if possible, attempt as an impartial facilitator to encourage a settlement between the disputing parties. In the last year, we were able to achieve a 64% successful conciliation rate.

Conciliation, under Hong Kong’s anti-discrimination ordinances, is a voluntary process. As such, the parties cannot be compelled to settle a complaint. When conciliation fails, the parties have the option to apply to us for legal assistance to take the case to the District Court. We grant legal assistance for a number of reasons, including whether the case raises a question of principle and the level of complexity in a case.

EOC-Assisted Court Cases

Last year, SDO cases made up almost half of the cases to which we granted legal assistance (11 out of 24). For instance, the court recently ruled in favour of the Plaintiff, represented by us, in two sexual harassment cases. One of the cases involved a woman who worked for a Government department and was sexually harassed by a colleague. She filed an internal complaint prior to bringing the case to us. However, due to the overly stringent nature of the Department’s internal complaints handling mechanism, her claim was dismissed. Our legal division represented her in court. She won the case and was commended by the judge for her courage and persistence in seeking justice. The case was also an important demonstration of our independence from the Government, despite our subvention from the public purse.

Judicial Review on SSPA

In another landmark court case demonstrating the EOC’s autonomy and independence, the EOC took the Government to task on the issue of gender equality in education in 2001. In this case, we challenged the inherent discrimination in the Secondary School Places Allocation (SSPA) system, which applied gender queuing and gender quotas in public schools, leading to a restriction to girls’ access to the best schools. After receiving a number of complaints from parents, we conducted a Formal Investigation into the system, which laid bare its adverse impact on girls as well as a number of boys. We then initiated judicial review, and the High Court found the system in violation of the SDO, leading to the abandonment of a system that had been in use for almost a quarter of a century and greater fairness in education for boys and girls.)

Code of Practice

Legal precedents set through cases such as these, both in Hong Kong and overseas, form a basis for the Code of Practice on Employment under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, a practical guideline for employers, employees, and human resource practitioners. The Code not only encourages compliance to the law, but aims to also promote a positive work environment through the implementation of equal opportunities work policies.

Public Education

Aside from complaints handling and legal action, we have increasingly invested our resources on public education and publicity since I became Chairperson. In fact, public education and training services together with policy and research activities took up 47% of the EOC’s budget in 2010/11, and 53% in 2011/12. This indicates the importance we place on this part of our work, which we do in a number of ways.

Research and Policy Advocacy

We commission research studies to provide us with relevant data on which to base our work. An objective of our research is also to spark debates on the issues which may not yet be part of the public consciousness. For instance, in 2006, we released the findings of our study on family-friendly employment practices with the Women’s Commission, when the discussion on this topic was inadequate in the corporate sector. At the time, we found that only 10 percent of employers have in place formal family-friendly policies and guidelines. Nowadays, more companies have put resources in this area, although the working hours of Hong Kong workers are still possibly the longest in the world. The Government and some companies have also started to offer paternity leave to their staff, and other family-friendly initiatives have become more common in the corporate sector.

Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value

In 2008, we undertook to examine the situation on the gender pay gap in Hong Kong at a time when the concept of equal pay for work of equal value was still relatively new in Hong Kong. The results formed the basis of our “Preventing Sex Discrimination in Pay Guide series,” aimed at helping employers and employees avoid unequal pay on the basis of gender. The year after, we examined the public perception of the portrayal of women in the Hong Kong media, which showed us that stereotyping remained prevalent.

And most recently, we published our findings from our “Study on Gender Stereotyping and its Impact on the Male Gender,” which is one of the first studies of its kind in Hong Kong. This grew out of the recognition not only of the changing needs of men in the shifting social landscape, but also the necessity of engaging them in the fight for gender equality.

Raising Public Awareness

With the leaps in technology, the EOC has also sought to use multimedia platforms to engage our stakeholders and raise public awareness. Our accessible website provides a comprehensive resource and overview of our work. The site sees, on average, 78,000 visitors per month, and selected content is available in 6 other languages in addition to Chinese and English to ensure that ethnic minority groups are not left behind. Visitors can also access our online training module on sexual harassment in an education setting. We believe this will help to raise awareness on sexual harassment among the student population, which they can carry onwards as they enter the workforce.

In addition, we regularly partner with public media companies in Hong Kong for radio and television content. For instance, we recently launched a radio show with Radio Television Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Federation of Women called “Programme on Gender Equity,” which features interviews with women pioneers who have broken new ground or overcome gender stereotypes.

Additionally, I regularly give interviews, contribute articles to newspapers, and participate in forums where I can share my thoughts and the Commission’s stance on the issue of gender equality in Hong Kong. We also cooperate regularly with our stakeholders, from government departments to non-governmental organisations to private corporations. For instance, I met just last week with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to discuss the way forward in advancing women’s numbers in corporate board directorship.

Furthermore, we provide targeted training on discrimination issues and other collaborative programmes with employers and human resource practitioners. An example is our “EO Club,” which works with businesses and organizations to assist them in implementing good management practices and equality standards in the workplace.

The initiatives I mentioned are only some of our work to mainstream the values of diversity and inclusion with regards to gender.


As an organization, though we have much left to do, I am convinced we are on the right track to ensuring that the next generation of men and women will live in a more equal society than what we have now.

Since 1996, the EOC has handled about 200,000 enquiries and 12,000 complaints on discrimination matters. To date, we have secured HK$67 million in compensation for the victims of discrimination on the grounds of sex, disability, family status, or race. The importance of having anti-discrimination legislation in Hong Kong and having a statutory body to implement these laws are quite evident. “Equal Opportunities” has now become part of the everyday language of the general public. Many now share the belief that no one should be deprived of equal opportunities to realize his or her potential and aspirations. Gender equality is a crucial part of this overall goal: to foster an inclusive society where all people are treated with respect and dignity.

Thank you.