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Women in Hong Kong: Finding a support network can help realise your dreams

By Clara How, Mar 25, 2021

Hong Kong is a city many of us know, love and pre-pandemic, frequented. So much of it is familiar. This week, we examine a problem women in Hong Kong face that many will resonate with: a lack of female representation in the workplace. 

Only 54 per cent of women in Hong Kong are in the workforce, and 29 per cent of management are female. It is an issue close to home in Singapore, where 61.2 per cent of Singaporean women are in the workforce, with 30 per cent holding management positions. In Malaysia, 38 per cent of management are women.* 

The reasons are likewise familiar: an entrenched gender bias that men should be the breadwinner, a lack of support for working mothers to remain in the workforce, and how women are denied options because of these challenges. 

Annie Yiu, a working mother of a three-year-old and a six-year-old in her 30s, counts herself fortunate to have a strong support system that enables her to continue at a job that she loves. A communications lead in a multinational corporation, she has battled self-doubt about her place in society as a wife, mother, and career woman, but now believes that every woman can change the tide of opinion in their own small way. 

Her advice for working mothers is to find a support network that empowers you to achieve your dreams, and she shares why something so simple can have a larger, transformative impact.

* * * *

When I was a child, I dreamed of becoming a dancer. When I was a young adult, I wanted to run my own business, and possibly become a travel blogger. These dreams were forgotten after I became a wife and a mother.

I enjoy my current job as a communications lead, but for many years, my curiosity had gone dormant. I channelled all my energy to being a perfect mother, and at work, only focused on what was in front of me. I never questioned my skill set, or saw new possibilities.

Over the years, I was headhunted by recruiters and potential employers through LinkedIn. But I shut down all these opportunities, believing that staying put would give my family stability. I worried that change might take me away from my kids, and believed that career growth might come my way organically anyway. 

I believed that if women were to put their own needs first, they would be seen as selfish. I had grown up believing that a woman’s role was at home, a mindset that was perpetuated by the media and the families I saw around me. The ideal family consisted of a hardworking husband, and a supportive wife. Men were teased for relying on his wife or her family for financial support. On screen, they were depicted as being looked down upon if they were less successful than their wife, no matter how hard they worked.

This belief was in spite of my growing up in a loving family.  My father was the breadwinner, but my parents had an easygoing approach to parenting, and prioritised familial relationships. However, it was difficult not to be influenced by the media and how impactful cultural beliefs are.

This belief was in spite of my growing up in a loving family. My father was the breadwinner, but my parents had an easygoing approach to parenting, and prioritised familial relationships. However, it was difficult not to be influenced by the media and how impactful cultural beliefs are.

I remembered hearing an old saying that a smart woman silently supports her husband. If her success exceeds his, it might cause problems in the family. Because of this, I consciously slowed down my career progress. My husband and I work in different industries, and it is easier for me to climb the corporate ladder. Even though he has always been extremely supportive, I didn’t want my success to surpass his.

I am not alone in thinking this way. The result of this cultural belief is that many women grow up believing that their life is an “either or” — family, or career.

This stigma is being slowly eradicated thanks to an increasing exposure to Western culture, and people seeing that women have more options. In addition, a practical aspect is that the cost of living in Hong Kong is also skyrocketing, and most people realise that they will need the combined income of two to purchase a first property. But despite these changes, as an adult, it was hard to entirely set aside the traditional thinking that the role of a wife and mother was to sacrifice. 

54 per cent of women in Hong Kong are in the workplace, and it was reported in 2019 that women in Hong Kong only hold 13.9 percent of seats in the boardroom on Hang Seng Index-listed companies, and a third of management roles**. Of course, it is a personal choice whether one wishes to enter the workforce. But I believe that this lack of female representation is partially due to women consciously giving up opportunities.

It was the discovery of a support network that completely changed my perspective. This is a network of like-minded individuals who share your goals, and who can help with advice and resources.

Four years ago when I was attending a company event, I heard about a mentorship programme run by The Women’s Foundation, a non-profit organisation that challenges gender stereotypes in Hong Kong. Called the Mentoring Programme for Women Leaders, it paired female mentors with aspiring younger mentees who had a maximum of 14 years of working experience. 

I just had a feeling that this programme might be my lighthouse, because I had been feeling unmoored at work. My first application was unsuccessful, but I made it through the next year. It happened to be my 14th year at work, which made it my last chance to apply to be a mentee.

It was now or never, so I gathered the courage to finally tell my husband the truth: “I feel like I have been putting our family first for so long, and right now, I want to pursue my career.”

His response still makes me emotional today: that I was silly for thinking the way I had for so long, and that he wanted me to be happy.

During the ten-month-long programme, I attended leadership competency training, group mentoring, and social networking. I tried to learn as much as I could, and developed friendships with fellow mentees and mentors. In one session, we imagined what life would be like if our current job was eliminated from the industry. As I imagined how I might pivot, it recalled my forgotten childhood ambitions.

My goals have now evolved, but it made me think: why not dare to dream again?

After the programme, I set myself several goals: to maintain a good work-life balance (something I have struggled with), and to actively push myself to advance my career. I decided that while working on a long-term goal of being an entrepreneur, I want to learn as much as I can in my current role, and develop all the complementary skills that I will need for the future.

I also felt like I returned to work with a group of superwomen who have my back.

There is power in seeing what your peers are doing — when we realise that there are possibilities, we can dream bigger.

With the wonderful women who were part of my group mentoring in the programme.

With the wonderful women who were part of my group mentoring in the programme.

The Women’s Foundation provided crucial networks. Subsequently, I also found support networks through other means, including through my role of being the Communications Lead in my company’s business resource group called UPWARD Hong Kong, where we implement networking programmes to help female employees grow, and have recently expanded to our Asian counterparts, called UPWARD Asia.

I believe the first step in finding these communities is to reflect on areas in your life that you would appreciate help or support, work or otherwise.

List these areas on a spreadsheet. For myself, the work-related skills I wanted to improve on were project management, communications, and crisis management metrics and insights. Outside of work, I wanted to better myself on managing a work-life balance and parenting skills. From there, you can look within your organisation or social networks through a new lens, whether it is through social media, friends or colleagues. 

This could mean reaching out to a mentor, or joining communities like Lean In. A mentor is someone who can share their experience and insights to help you handle challenges, and advise against pitfalls. The mentor you seek should have skill sets that are specific to what you need, but over time as the relationship and trust builds, the situations you seek advice on may vary. After all, many skills and values are transferable. 

Be open to contacting peers on platforms like LinkedIn, sharing your situation and what you need before suggesting a meet-up. From my experience, if you approach with friendliness and a purpose, people are generally positive.

The most important thing is to find a network where you feel safe to be vulnerable. 

It should be with people whom you feel open to share, no matter whether you think your thoughts are foolish or irrelevant. A committed network has individuals who not only respect and respond, but who are also brave enough to speak up.

The benefits of being connected to these women was far-reaching. Once my curiosity was awakened, my attitude at work and at home changed. My colleagues began to tell me that I was bolder in speaking up, and while I was always helpful, I was now more able to offer advice more constructively.

After the programme, I gained the courage to facilitate our company’s regular All Staff Meetings (which have now gone virtual), and built a personal brand of hosting.

After the programme, I gained the courage to facilitate our company’s regular All Staff Meetings (which have now gone virtual), and built a personal brand of hosting.

Even though my company is run by an understanding management, occasionally I was still on the receiving end of well-intentioned but unconscious bias. People have made decisions for me about my workload, saying: “Annie, you don’t need to attend this meeting because you should be busy with your kids at night.”

Now, I state what my priorities are, what I need to focus on (whether it is childcare or a certain project). I tell my colleagues: “You don’t need to worry about me, because I will arrange for childcare if necessary. We are a team, and I will let you know if I need help.”

This is empowering. Because when I make my intentions known and prove that I am capable, people realise that they don’t need to pigeonhole me just because I am a working mum.

At home, my husband noticed that I started reading again, and I was more refreshed and energised. It became easier for us to reach a common ground during conflict, because I had learnt from the example of my peers to negotiate, and be a better listener.

For example, we used to argue about parenting, such as which school to send our children. Now, we try to lay out our options based on the one thing that unites us, which is to ensure our kids are happy. 

I have also seen how having a support network can help full-time mums, especially those who want to return to the workforce and who are facing challenges. 

Practical considerations, such as limited childcare options, are another reason why some women have no choice but to give up on working and stay at home. I’m fortunate to have a home set-up that enables me to work, and be as committed as I am. My parents and in-laws occasionally help with childcare, my husband is a hands-on father, and I have a helper to assist with chores. 

 

My daughter, dressing up her grandmother in princess accessories!

My daughter, dressing up her grandmother in princess accessories!

I recognise that not everyone can say the same. Space in Hong Kong is so expensive, and many people do not stay with their parents or have live-in helpers (which costs around HK5,000 a month, or SGD866). There are also very limited spaces for private childcare centres, and a very long waitlist for government centres. 

The employment scene is also competitive. In Hong Kong, employers tend to look for resumes that are continuous; for those who are not open-minded, they would question if you still have the relevant skill sets after a few years away.

For those who do get jobs, these women are likely to face a severe pay cut, which might lead to questions at home, such as: “Is it worth it to return to work, for this amount?” Of course, it is not just about the money, but for women to also feel like they are contributing to something they enjoy. 

When it comes to achieving gender equality, we will need government support and systemic changes in our education and social infrastructure. But these are things that the everyday woman cannot control. Being held back by circumstances or cultural beliefs is frustrating, and can leave us feeling fatigued, or helpless.

I believe that instead of looking to others or waiting for change, what we can do is to change the way we see our purpose, and realise that we have options.

When one faces problems alone, it can result in overthinking and opportunities may be lost. The difference between having a support group and seeking recruiters or career consultants is that we show each other care and concern. I am part of various groups where women advise each other on writing resumes and negotiating offers, and believe that the encouragement they received was what made them take the first step in applying for jobs.

With the support group I have had since planning my wedding, and we are now parents! Mothers need flexibility, and we can encourage each other to leverage on the new normal of working from home. More companies now are open to accepting employees who work remotely, and this could be our opportunity.

With the support group I have had since planning my wedding, and we are now parents! Mothers need flexibility, and we can encourage each other to leverage on the new normal of working from home. More companies now are open to accepting employees who work remotely, and this could be our opportunity.

My support networks were what saw me through during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hong Kong apartments are so small, and most of the time I was working in close quarters to my children, who were frustrated from being cooped up at home for so long. It was heartbreaking to see. Everyone in the household started to lose their temper more easily, and it became hard to focus. 

Because my company has a base in the United States, I need to take night-time international calls. The days just seemed endless and even though I was at home, I wasn’t spending time with my children. I reached out to one of my mentors, and told her that I didn’t know what to do. 

She suggested I try exercising with my children, and unwind with a glass of wine with my husband.

They sound like such little things that I should have thought of myself, but sometimes, it takes someone from the outside who can offer clarity. 

When you share your pain, and someone offers you a solution, you see how you can influence the person next to you.

These people tend to be our loved ones, and what follows is that the nuclear family will evolve. Families form the cells of our society, so if each cell looks to empower women, a domino effect begins.

By speaking with our husbands and the men in our lives, we can also get more allies. When women stay quiet because we think we are protecting our husband or family, our partners think that everything is okay. Working mums do need support from the public, but ultimately, we need our partners to understand our needs, share the responsibility, and stand up for us. 

When we are used to seeing men pursuing their career, it becomes something we don’t question. The same follows — when we are told repeatedly that our place in society is to be a homemaker, we may not question it, or start to believe that there’s no chance for us. It is so important that more women are seen fulfilling their ambitions. It not only motivates other young women, but also for parents to encourage their children.

I am proud of myself, and the women around me who are working towards their goals. A woman’s potential is diverse, and it is so important that the next generation sees this.

Before the pandemic, I would occasionally bring my children into my office on Fridays. I want them to see where I work, and I always share with them what I do. My daughter is six, and dreams of becoming a pastry chef because she has a sweet tooth.

Whatever her dream may be, I hope to be her role model, and show her that nothing is impossible. She does not need to be held back by cultural or social norms.

This is why I believe that it’s not enough for the government to just say that more women should be on top. It can never be about just seeing a handful of examples, but everyone coming together. More women need this courage, and I hope that we can inspire each other.

*These figures are according to the Census and Statistics Department of Hong Kong, the Department of Statistics in Singapore, and the Hays Asia Salary Guide, 2018. 

**According to a 2019 report by Community Business, a non-profit organisation based in Hong Kong that supports businesses to have a positive impact on communities. 

 

This is the fourth story in our International Women’s Day series, ‘What I’m Choosing to Challenge in My Country’. Click here to read our story on normalising periods in the United Kingdom, here to understand why transgender women in Malaysia need our help, and here to read about the fight against child marriage in the African continent. 

 

Writer’s Note:
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about my uncertainties about parenthood, and how they square with my career ambitions. I share about my differences with my mother, our similarities, and everything in between. 

Join me and 15,000 other women on Dayre who share the big and small moments of their life with a supportive community. We talk about what it means to be a mother, a mum-to-be, and the choice to remain child-free. We support each other through each other’s choices on motherhood. 

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