[SCMP Column] Paying the Price

March 12, 2016

The afternoon panel discussion was on The Digital Revolution – how the internet technologies were transforming every aspect of the world we are working in. It was chaired by Peggy Johnson, from Microsoft and one of the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) members from the US. As she turned to the first panel speaker, instead of launching into the Digital Revolution, she caught everyone short: “Can I start by noting that this is the first panel I have ever sat on where every person up here is a woman.”
Even more striking, one of the four women making up the panel was so heavily pregnant that I was surprised there was not an ambulance on standby outside in case of an emergency need to whisk her away.

This was of course San Francisco, which walks to a different beat from most of the world, but there was something both triumphal and intimidating about that group of women, present not just to inspire us about how the digital world is changing our working world, but to celebrate that women were, for that afternoon at least, monopolizing the task. For a fleeting moment, as a sixty-something male, the realization was intimidating. But then, hang on a minute: surely this is how women must have felt through male-dominated conferences and executive board meetings through time immemorial.

It was International Women’s Day last Tuesday that brought this memory back, because in most cities and most countries across the world it would still be rare to witness an all-women panel – except of course unless the theme stereotypically female. To drive the point home, a big Deloitte study landed on my desk on Monday about “Global Cities, Global talent” – how a certain small number of cities worldwide are turbocharged by the aggregation of talented people and their global networks. Amid impressive data on how seven cities – London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney – lead the world as aggregators of talent, a particular datapoint jumped out: out of analysis of the career moves and connections of the 50,000 business and public sector leaders across 40,000 organisations linked in these cities, fewer than 12% were women. Sydney “led” the field with 12.3%, and I would have been embarrassed that Hong Kong had only 11.6% - except that London boasted a mere 10.5%. If my memory serves me, that it almost exactly the same as the proportion of women that serve on company boards worldwide. Turbocharged as these “superconnector” cities may be, surely their competitiveness would be even stronger if women played a larger role?

My daughter also pointed me to November 9 last year – worldwide Equal Pay Day – the day used to benchmark how much less women are paid than men for the same work. In short, November 9 would have been the date on which a woman’s salary “ran out” if she were being paid at the same rate as her male counterpart.

One has to hope that Equal Pay Day will gradually move towards December and eventually on beyond Christmas, but this surely is going to take many years. And it seems Hong Kong’s own Equal Pay Day is worse than the global date. According to our Census and Statistics department, women’s salaries overall are 16.67% lower than men’s. That would put our Equal Pay Day on October 30.

I am sure many of Hong Kong’s passionately committed women’s groups must wonder why I am suddenly making such a fuss over an issue that has already been so exhaustively championed. But I think the very persistence of the gap is justification enough. Just a day after the Digital Economy panel discussion in San Francisco, we had a further fascinating twist to this discriminatory theme: our ABAC Women’s Lunch debate was on women and “STEM” education. For those in the dark about STEM, it means “Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths” education. In short, girls worldwide do much worse in the STEM subjects than do boys. Not because they are intrinsically worse at these subjects, it seems, but for a host of social and cultural reasons. In short, it is not “cool” for girls to do “nerdy” stuff.

Economically, all of our economies pay a price for this. The most acute and extreme challenges are already apparent in Japan, where rapid ageing, a reluctance to allow the import of workers, and a consistent failure to enable or encourage women to build meaningful careers is creating a significant barrier to future economic growth. Hong Kong is not yet facing such clear dangers, and the chauvinisms that block women from building professional and managerial careers are hopefully not as impenetrable as those in Japan, but we continue to suffer serious economic losses because we fail to keep well educated women in the workforce.

In short: as many women graduate with honours from Hong Kong universities as do men, but social and cultural attrition means that a decade later they are massively under-represented in the skilled areas of the economy. And even where women persist, they on average earn 17% less than their male counterparts for the same work. This discrimination is particularly apparent in the “STEM” area of the economy that is playing such a massive role in driving the digital economic revolution. Even a modest reversal of these imbalances is likely to drive massive rewards in future economic competitiveness.

This is a terrible economic and social failure, and it should not be ignored by our administration. Only one discrimination irritates me more, and it is one in which I confess a strong personal bias: that is the discrimination against old people like me, who governments worldwide are trying to push out on the retirement scrap-heap, converting me overnight from a strong contributor to the economy to a liability and tax burden. Only women in my position have reason to feel angrier: discriminated against throughout their careers, they now face discrimination as they are pushed out into retirement. Maybe we should join forces. Our economy would be healthier.
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