Equal Opportunities Commission



Panel discussion on “The Changing role of Men”
Organised by The Women's Foundation

Introductory Remark by Mr LAM Woon-kwong, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission


Dear Su-Mei, Speakers and Friends,

Thank you for inviting me. This is a subject that the Equal Opportunities Commission is concerned, so much so that we commissioned a special study on it last year. But I am not going to talk about the study tonight because it has not yet been finished.

Since Hong Kong's population is largely Chinese, so let me start from there. Traditional Chinese society is founded on Confucian values. A typical characteristic of Confucian societies is their clear power hierarchy. In the family, women have been taught for centuries the doctrine of "Three Obedience": obey your father as a daughter; obey your husband as a wife; and obey your son as a widow. That pretty well sets down the power balance in a typical Chinese family.

Some of you may say: but old China died more than a century ago, and we must be very far away from these values in modern day Hong Kong. However, traditions do die hard, especially for those that have existed for so long that they had been embedded into our social "DNA".

The time lag between modern life and traditions that had long past their use-by date can last for centuries even in far away and democratic Britain. Back in the early 20th century, Winston Churchill once remarked that "If we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun. Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers and husbands," he went on to say. It seems that Churchill could be counted among our Confucian forefathers too!

But the British women have proven him wrong: they helped him and the nation to win two world wars by running Britain's factories and farms while most of the men were in the battle field; and they have made Britain a more liberal and kinder society. So, even a great leader could be behind the times when it came to gender stereotyping.

Times have changed: the change is for the better for women on the whole. Women are now better educated than men; more women are joining the workforce; children have become fewer per family (though that has to some extent been offset by the much more intensive education care needed to raise them); foreign domestic helpers have become more affordable (at least in Hong Kong); and gender equality has become the buzz word.

Yet many traits remain stubbornly unchanged. Margaret Thatcher once said: "In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman." Change the word "politics" to "family life", and you get pretty much the same answer.

Women continue to spend much more time on household duties including child and elderly care. Women continue to be paid less in grassroots jobs. And perhaps most persistently, both men and women still stick to the die-hard principle of "husband must earn more than the wife." Among modern day newly wedded couples in Hong Kong, only 4.7% of wives earn more than their husbands, lower than that of a generation ago when it was 5.4%!

If modern men are truly rational, like our economists said, then such a phenomenon would be very strange indeed. Marrying a high income wife should benefit him and the family. There is no economic logic in refusing a high income bride! If free love is truly the foundation of modern day marriages, like what the sociologists said, then there should be no question of our women turning away men they love just because they earn less. Let us see what our panelists have to say later.

Simultaneously, times have been changing for the worse for men, at least in the developed world. Tenure and career jobs have been disappearing rapidly, with the onset of globalization. Men are increasingly under threat of being out of work. But work to men means more than just making a living. Work represents men’s social identity and family status. To cook at home and to play with kids during men's spare time is fun. To do so when being out of work is disgrace. So there lie the inexplicable men-family relationships. Again, we look forward to what our panelists have to say later.

Ladies and gentlemen, my role tonight is to introduce the subject. Happily, I don't have to offer solutions. There is probably no magic bullet anyway. But we must not turn away from this subject which is real, and which is getting more serious by the day. Outdated, stereotyped concepts continue to occupy our mind, to the damage of us all. So the more we engage ourselves in facing them, in thrashing out the issues, the better chance we have in coming to grips with them before it is too late.

With that remark, I hand the forum back to the speakers and wish you a fruitful evening.

Thank you.