A Serious Balancing Act

HONG KONG, March 8 — At the close of its inaugural month in a new home, and in celebration of International Women's Day, Asia Society Hong Kong Center invited four remarkable and successful women to speak in a panel discussion called Women on the Go: Working Women Today. The panel was the opening discussion in the new Women's Healthcare Series, which is co-organized by the Asia Society Hong Kong Center and global healthcare provider MSD.

The panel's moderator, Alexandra A. Seno, who is a writer and commentator for such publications as The Globe and Mail and the Wall Street Journal, opened the discussion asking panelists what they saw as the most urgent issues facing Hong Kong's working woman today.

Pam Cheng, Senior VP and COO of MSD China, responded that although MSD China can boast of an almost 50% female workforce globally, only 25% of their senior management is women. The barrier to sustaining a high female senior workforce, she argued, is the difficulty, both real and perceived, of maintaining a satisfying work-life balance. As a mother of three teenagers, Cheng said balance was "absolutely possible," but acknowledged the intense pressure on working women to do it all.

Robin Bishop, COO of the non-government organization Community Business, agreed but noted that striking a work-life balance should not be exclusively considered a women's issue. Nevertheless, the onus to balance work and family often falls unduly on women. One Community Business report, called "The Gender Diversity Benchmark in Asia," surveyed Asian women across all levels of management. While 80% of women in middle management reported that they wanted senior management positions, a third of these women believed it was impossible due to family responsibilities.

Bishop contended that the most essential way for companies to accommodate women in the workplace is to offer flexible work hours, or "flexitime." She stressed that this is not a question of working fewer hours, but rather of "giving people a degree of control, so that they can deliver their work in the best way possible."

The demanding hours of corporate culture and family life also pose a significant health risk, said Professor Sian Griffiths, the Director of CUHK's School of Public Health and Primary Care. She said that binge drinking amongst young women is rising in Hong Kong as a result of stress and corporate culture, while essential preventative care measures are being neglected. Griffiths particularly noted the importance of a regular breast cancer-screening program, an area in which "Hong Kong lags behind its neighbors." She added, "And it's not a money issue."

Griffiths reflected, "People are afraid to talk about work-life balance in Hong Kong." She acknowledged that there is an individual responsibility to balance one's life, but argued that, “companies must foster a work culture where its employees feel comfortable going to a breast cancer screening or going to pick up their kids."

In agreement with Bishop, she quipped, "And it doesn't have to be a woman picking up the kids!"

In closing, Sophia Kao, the former Chairperson of Women’s Commission, argued that equality must truly begin at home. “More that half of the population in China believes that the men's duty is to bring money home, and the women’s job is to do the housework and take care of the family. We really need to promote a fairer culture.”

Reported by Maddie Gressel