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Mama Musings: Women in the Workplace

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I was lucky enough to attend a dinner recently with Rona Fairhead, Chairwoman of the BBC, and non-Executive Director of HSBC and PepsiCo. She has forged an impressive career based on hard work and smart choices – for example, choosing to stay on the operational side rather than going for client-facing roles because she realised early on there was more control over your time (and therefore, life) behind the scenes of a major organisation. She has done this whilst managing to stay true to her personal priority: to have a family.

Various topics were up for discussion, including women in leadership, the pay gap, retaining women in the workplace after they’ve had children, and instilling in girls and young women that they can be CEOs and Chairwomen, and it got me thinking. There are two points in a women’s working life when she may be tested: firstly, leaving university and transitioning into the world of work; and once she starts to have a family. Since the latter is the stage I am at, this is what I will focus on.

Organisations lose women in their thirties. I have seen talented, clever, experienced friends leave organisations because of the lack of flexibility available to them. They often feel torn, guilty, pulled in so many directions (with little ones who cling to their legs when they try to leave in the morning and whose sobs you can still hear as you wait for the lift) and in some cases it also comes down to the cost and quality of childcare, personal finances and changing ambitions.

Mamapreneur in Hong Kong

Here in Hong Kong, we have pretty good childcare options and are liberated from most of the ‘domestics’ we would have to do back in our home countries, but there are other challenges. The opportunities for flexible and part-time working are (largely) non-existent. Many companies have archaic and often counter-intuitive policies when it comes to women looking to return to work after having children. Its either full time or no time. You are made to choose.

Maternity leave is better (just) than some countries, namely the US. But still not enough for a lot of women. Paternity leave (despite the amendment last year to three days) is an abomination. But it’s what happens after the legislated maternity leave that’s most worrying. The lack of understanding towards working parents is so short-sighted on the part of employers. The economic benefits of retaining women in the workforce are more than just the obvious loss of talent, 85% of all purchase decisions today are made by women. Female consumers control the marketplace and women consider purchases carefully. Women are also owning and running more businesses than ever before, especially here in Asia. Goldman Sachs calculates that increasing women’s participation in the labour market to equal mens, boosts GDP. A simple cost-benefit analysis will tell you that women should remain in the workforce (and be promoted and progressed once there) for as long and as far as possible.

Sadly, the Economist writes that of all the triggers of stereotyping in today’s workplace, motherhood triggers the strongest bias, and in a 2013 US study they cite mothers were “79% less likely to be hired and 100% less likely to be promoted”. They were also held to higher performance and punctuality standards if hired.

To remain competitive, Hong Kong employers need to start embracing flexible and part-time working, tele-commuting and home-working. Hong Kong is a dynamic, agile free market and companies should be forward-thinking enough to match those principles in their own operations. Obviously there are some industries that need employees to be there (retail, hospitality, etc.) but there is still scope for flexibility and understanding for both men and women.

It is ultimately about realising that you have choices available to you. All of the readers of Sassy Mama will be in a pretty privileged position – intelligent, educated, independent. Women need to work out what they want from their working lives and then have the confidence in themselves and the tenacity go out there and get it. Rona Fairhead gave some great advice, no matter where she worked she always told her potential employers that nativity plays and important sports fixtures were sacrosanct. She never faltered on this and always stuck to her guns. Work out what is important to you and build this in from the start.

Sometimes entrepreneurialism is forged out of necessity. However it happens, we live in a city where entrepreneurialism is celebrated, taking risks is encouraged and supported – look at Cocoon, The Loft and The Hive for examples of co-working environments for entrepreneurs. There are networks, startup support groups and success stories all around us. If you’re creative look at The Crafties, if you’re a foodie start-up track down Kitchen Sync, if you are Gen-Y join the groups at the Chambers of Commerce (BritCham has recently launched a mentoring programme with some pretty impressive mentors ready to be matched). And if you just want to find out more, check out StartUps HK.

If you can’t beat them, join them and create the kind of workplace were flexibility thrives.

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