The American Chamber of Commerce Women in Business Committee Luncheon Meeting

“Women Business Leaders in Hong Kong – Where are they?” (只備英文版)— Speech by Ms Anna Wu, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission



I am very honored to be invited to this luncheon meeting today and share with you my views on the role of women in Hong Kong's business community, the barriers they face and the ways ahead.


Women's status has significantly improved over the past 20 years. This is very much a global trend. Japan has made an unprecedented move recently to appoint five women into its new Cabinet. Most women have better control of their lives now and many could pursue careers of their choices. And we have women who are in key positions in the public sector, as well as in the corporate world.

But is it really all hunky-dory? Well, let me tell you a story about the impressions of a young mind. On my trip to a Women Leaders' Network meeting last year, my husband and my 10-year-old son went with me. On the flight going there, my son asked what I would be doing there and I explained. He proceeded to give me his perspective of the world. He said, "I think women are less suited to being leaders than men. There are so few of them around!" Well, you see fewer of them and therefore they are not as good. What the young minds find visible or not visible in a society creates enormous impact on them. We need clear visible role models, like yourselves. It is only when kids see these role models that they feel they and others can make it too.


Although we have very successful businesswomen like Marjorie Yang of the Esquel Group in Hong Kong, women on corporate boards are still few and far between. We have found through our research that women in Hong Kong have minimal participation in the economic decision-making process. Our study in 1999 found less than 5% of women on the Boards of the 33 companies that made up the Hang Seng Index.

This 5% is lower than advanced countries like the U.S., Canada and Australia. According to reports of Catalyst, which is a New York-based non-profit research and advisory organization working to advance women in business and the professions, women held 11.7% of the U.S.'s Fortune 500 board seats in the year 2000, while women held 7.5% of the board seats on the top 560 Canadian companies in 1998. The percentage of female directors in the top 300 Australian companies was 10.7% according to the 1999 report of another women's organization, Corporate Women Directors International .

You will probably agree with me that we need more women board members and there are obvious reasons for businesses to fill up directorship with more women because women make up a huge market -- they are consumers and spenders for the household, from groceries to clothing to mortgage. More women are also buying insurance and financial products. Business must cater for their needs to increase the market share.

Catalyst, in its 2000 Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners reveals that women comprise 12.5 percent of the corporate officer ranks of Fortune 500 companies . The figure refers to positions such as chairman, CEO, vice chairman, president, and COO. It seems that finally females are no longer just tokens.

What accounts for this trend? One major reason is that a greater pool of qualified women candidates exists today than ever before. According to Catalyst statistics, women are nearly half the managerial workforce in the US. More and more women in line management positions with experience in marketing; finance, technology, strategic planning and international arena are available for membership on boards. Corporations are also recognizing that boards can benefit from diverse perspectives, in light of the challenges and opportunities posed by technology and globalization.

How do women move into boards more easily? Catalyst suggests women to become visible, that is, to be an expert or spokesperson for your company. Also, learn what boards do and keep current on board issues and regulations. And equally important is to let others know your goal to serve on a corporate board and consider not-for-profit, advisory or government boards and commissions.


While women steer their careers toward top operational positions before they are appointed on boards, one major issue they face is the glass ceiling. A report issued by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission described barriers to women's career progress as the glass ceiling, the glass walls and sticky floors. "Glass ceiling" refers to vertical sex segregation in organizations, "glass walls" refer to occupational segregations, and "sticky floors" refer to where there is no career movement beyond the initial entry job.

In fact, women with highflying careers may still not be treated as equal to men with highflying careers. Catalyst found in 1998 that 29% of women business owners cited glass-ceiling issues as the reason for leaving corporate positions. Of these women, 47% defined glass ceiling issues as contributions not recognized or valued, 34% defined the issue as not being taken seriously, 29% felt isolated as one of few women or minorities and 27% saw others being promoted ahead of themselves.

Catalyst also found that misconceptions about women – that they prefer to stay in one place, for example – have kept female middle managers out of career-enhancing international assignments. As global experience is more and more a must for advancement in large corporations, the result is a global glass ceiling.

How do women break the glass ceiling and achieve success then? According to Catalyst statistics in 1996, 77% of women executives said that they achieved success by consistently exceeding expectations, 1% said by developing style with which male managers are comfortable, and 50% said by seeking out difficult assignments and 37% referring to their experience of having influential mentors.

I also have my own perspectives on how we can help ourselves a little more. We need to focus on (L) leadership, (M) mentoring and (N) networking. These are the LMN's for women. We also need to look out market shares and the consumer power that women can bring to the table. Lastly, we need to look at the 3 W's, Women Who's Who, a directory that lists women business leaders.

What can employers do in developing and keeping their women employees? Women are more likely than men to see the challenge of balancing work and family responsibilities as an obstacle to success. To encourage mothers to remain in employment and for further development, the hours and numbers of creche programmes should be extended and further childcare facilities should be located near places where mothers live and work. Employers in the private sector should be encouraged to establish workplace nurseries. The employers can also provide flexible working arrangements for employees with family responsibilities, like flextime, compressed workweeks and telecommunicating.

In Hong Kong, women's positions in the job market are obviously lower than those of men. Figures released by the Census and Statistics Department show that in 1999, 8% of female workers were managers, administrators and professionals while 16% of male workers were in the same category. 32% of female workers were clerks, as compared with 9% of male workers. 25% of female workers were in elementary occupations while 14% of male workers were in the same category.

Of the various industries, 69% of Hong Kong women were in community, social and personal services; and wholesale/retail, import/export, restaurants and hotels. The percentage of men in these industries was only 42% (The General Household survey, 1999). These are industries where wages are traditionally lower and employment tends to be on a temporary or casual basis.

In 1991, women's median earning was 22% lower than that of men. In 1999, the median monthly salary of a woman in Hong Kong was $8,500, which was 23% lower than the $11,000 received by her male counterpart (The General Household Survey, 1999). The Department of Labour says that the wage difference between men and women may be due to a combination of factors including the nature of jobs taken, educational attainment level, family commitment and career aspiration.

The "nature of job taken" means that men and women are often segregated into different types of jobs. The segregation may be the result of career choice based on socialization and the expectations of the job market. Nevertheless, studies show that male-dominated jobs (75% males) often pay better than female-dominated (75% female) jobs.


Stress, lack of work/life balance and sometimes gender discrimination, have taken a toll on a large number of women. Some of them leave their 9-to-9 jobs and employ themselves by setting up their own businesses. On the other hand, some women start their businesses to realize their long-time entrepreneurial dreams. In fact, self-employment is rapidly expanding worldwide. In the U.S., there were 9.1 million women-owned businesses in 1999, constituting 38 per cent of all businesses. In Hong Kong, there are also young, well-educated and tech-smart women who have already set up their own e-businesses, but the number is still small. The government should do more. The government should spend money on business training programmes or small loans for women.

To establish businesses, money and loans are crucial. However, it is an unfortunate fact that women have trouble borrowing money from banks with which to start small businesses, although women are incredibly good repayers. Financing remains one of the biggest hurdles faced by women entrepreneurs worldwide, since most women entrepreneurs have neither property to offer as security or a secure job that is almost dismissal-proof for borrowing from banks.

Those of us who are homemakers often wish that homemaking be treated as a regular profession. It should be. Let me give you this story that was sent to me recently:

One day at the Town Hall, the Clerk who was obviously a career woman, poised, efficient, and possessed of a high-sounding title like "Official Inquisitioner" or "Town Registrar" had this conversation with another woman, the homemaker.
"And what is your occupation?" she probed.
"I'm a Research Associate in the field of Child Development and Human Relations." The homemaker answered.

"Might I ask," said the clerk with new interest, "just what you do in your field?"
Coolly, without any trace of fluster in her voice, the homemaker replied, "I have a continuing programme of research (what mother doesn't) in the laboratory and in the field (normally she would have said indoors and out). I'm working for my Masters (the whole darned family) and already have four credits (all daughters).
"Of course, the job is one of the most demanding in the humanities (any mother care to disagree?) and often work 14 hours a day (24 is more like it). But the job is more challenging than most run-of-the-mill careers and the rewards are in satisfaction rather than just money."

There was an increasing note of respect in the clerk's voice as she completed the form, stood up, and personally ushered the homemaker to the door.
As she drove into her driveway, buoyed up by her glamorous new career, she was greeted by her lab assistants – ages 13, 7 and 3. Upstairs she could hear her new experimental model (6 months) in the child-development programme, testing out a new vocal pattern. She felt triumphant! She had scored a beat on bureaucracy! And She had gone on the official records as someone more distinguished and indispensable to mankind than "just another mother." Motherhood…what a glorious career. Especially when there's a title on the door. This story should be titled, "I'm just a Mother? Excuse me???"


The U.S. government has set up the Small Business Administration to help small, disadvantaged and women-owned businesses to succeed. The Hong Kong Government and banks should look into how to provide women with access to credit. With the talk about bank charging small depositors, there is every reason in the world for enterprising women to start a women's bank, or to provide stored value cards with which grassroots women can establish Internet accounts for purchases.

To further enhance women's role in the business community, it is important to create an enabling environment for them to excel.


Despite all the problems, women in Hong Kong have come a long way. One of the most significant measures in the empowerment of women in Hong Kong is the requirement for nine-year compulsory education since the 70's. Back in 1971, about 36% of women over the age of 15 had received no schooling or only kindergarten education (Note 1). By 1999, this figure was reduced to 12.6%. Education is a great equalizer. Many studies have shown that as mothers become better educated, the health and education of their children also improve. Many top economists now consider money spent on educating girls as the best investment for development because women are an agent of change. In the Ivory Coast, it was found that if women had as much control as men over cash income, the amount spent on food would go up by 9% while spending on cigarettes would fall by 55% and on alcohol by 99%.


Besides education, information technology will be another major empowering factor in the coming decades. According to a 2000 web study by the Angus Reid Group, a global market and social research company, 35% of the Hong Kong population used the Internet in 2000. The percentage for the U.S. was 59 % and for Japan, 33% . About 59% of Internet users in 2000 are male and 41% female; however, for people who intend to go online in a year, an estimated 54% will be female and 46% male.

Another report released by Internet measurement company NetValue in spring this year shows that mothers only constitute 27% of all women who surf on the Net in Hong Kong. In the U.S., the percentage for mothers online is 52.5% of all female users.

We know "IT" is a double-edged sword. It can help women to narrow the gap or create a wider divide for them. For the significant number of women who are confined to their homes, IT also offers the potential to help them develop new careers at home. The promotion of the Small Office Home Office (SOHO) concept can open new avenues for women. The information economy no longer requires production lines to compete, just ideas.


In closing, I would like to share with you the success story of Mrs. Maria Lee. She is a housewife-turned entrepreneur who used her culinary skills to set up one cake shop in Hong Kong in 1966 and went on to build a multinational enterprise with branches in China, Taiwan, USA and Canada. The business expanded aggressively and ran into difficulties, especially after the Asian financial crisis. By 1998, it went into voluntary liquidation. But it is important to look beyond the failure of that business. Mrs. Lee's rise to fortunes started from a very small idea.

It is customary to give cakes to wedding guests before the wedding reception takes place and in the past, cakes were literally hand-delivered. Mrs. Lee sold cake coupons and it became the perfect solution as well as averting many pre-nuptial arguments.

Mrs. Lee was in her seventies when her business ended. For many, that would probably be a convenient point to retire gracefully. Not so for Mrs. Lee. She has now branched into organising elaborate "Designer Dinners" in her home, starring herself the head chef, and operates 3-day tours in China in her native hometown. She is enjoying herself and that attitude to life is the most inspiring. As George Bernard Shaw once said:

"People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in the world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them."

That's what we must do – make the circumstances and put women on the agenda. Thank you.

p.67 in "Breaking New Ground: Promoting Equal Opportunities in Hong Kong", published by the EOC in 1999