Elsie Leung, Hong Kong’s former Secretary of Justice, and Susie Cheung, General Counsel and Company Secretary of the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation, picked up awards at the latest ‘Asia Women in Business Law Awards’. In this interview with CSj, they discuss board diversity and gender equality in Hong Kong.

Congratulations on your awards at the ‘Asia Women in Business Law Awards’. Why do you think there is a significantly lower number of women than men in leadership positions in Hong Kong?

Susie Cheung: ‘It is true that the proportion of women sitting on the corporate boards and executive committees, not just in Hong Kong, but across Asian countries, is strikingly low compared with Europe and the US, even though women remain under- represented in those regions too. An international comparison of some of the developed countries shows that the Nordic countries continue to lead the developed world in their percentage of female directors – in Norway the figure is 36.1%. Currently in Hong Kong 9.5% of directors are female and in mainland China the figure is 8.4%. This puts us above average in Asia – Japan has a mere 1.1% of women representation on its boards!

This narrow representation of women at the top of the corporate hierarchy is due partly to the lower rates of female labour participation at the senior level. The higher up the hierarchy you go, the less visible women become. This means that it can be difficult even to begin feeding women into the pipeline for senior positions. China, for example, has one of the world’s highest female labour participation rates (about 74% of women aged 15-64 are engaged actively in the labour market), but women account for only 8.4% of its corporate board members.

While Hong Kong has not fared too badly compared with some of its neighbouring countries, there is no reason for complacency as globally many governments and corporations are moving in the direction of actively promoting board diversity. The UK, the US and other major economies have undergone corporate governance reforms in this area, and there is an urgent need for Hong Kong to align itself with the best international practice in order to maintain Hong Kong’s position as a major international financial centre.

The question therefore is what has held women back from participation in corporate boards or senior management roles? The barriers are manifold but most obvious perhaps is the “double burden” syndrome, where many women have to balance their work and domestic chores since, culturally, women are expected to take sole responsibility for family and household duties. Despite the prevalence of domestic helpers in middle-class households in Hong Kong, women still struggle to balance the demands of work and family. Their representation in the labour force drops dramatically after marriage and by implication child bearing, which indicates that women incur large opportunity costs when starting families.

The second biggest barrier is probably the “anytime, anywhere” performance model where a manager’s performance is gauged by the level of his or her availability to work on assignments. This makes it difficult for women who want to balance their work with family responsibilities to succeed. Lack of pro-family public policies/ support services such as child care and flexible working hours by the government and employers is a major barrier to increasing gender representation in senior positions. Flexible working time, which is quite a common work arrangement in the West, is seldom adopted by employers in Hong Kong.

A third barrier is gender stereotyping where women’s promotional prospects are limited by the “glass ceiling” (meaning the vertical sex segregation in organisations), the “glass walls” (meaning the occupational segregation), and the “sticky floors” (meaning there may not be any career movement beyond the initial job entry) that still persists even after the passing of the Sex Discrimination Ordinance in 1995. These represent hidden obstacles for women to be promoted to senior positions due to the often unspoken deep-rooted gender bias against women in business.

The absence of female role models who can inspire and encourage other women, and a lack of networks that can be crucial to the advancement of women’s career, can be seen as another barrier. Programmes such as sponsorships and mentorships designed to nurture the talents of potential women leaders are crucial to assist women to advance up the corporate hierarchy.’

Elsie Leung: ‘I agree with Susie, women have traditionally been in an inferior position to men. In 1842 when Captain Elliot landed in Hong Kong it was announced that Chinese law would continue to apply to Chinese residents. So for many years the Qing law which is quite inequitable to women continued to apply in Hong Kong, although the Qing dynasty ceased to exist from 1911. This was particularly the case in family law. Men could have as many concubines as they could support and could oust their wives on several grounds including not bearing a son, being disrespectful to their parents-in-law and even talking too much! It was only in 1971 that there was an extensive amendment of the law, concubinage was abandoned and men and women were given equal rights of succession.’

I’m sure there will be many readers surprised to learn that such basic reforms were so recent.

Elsie Leung: ‘I was admitted in 1968 so in my student days I still had to know about the Qing law. Under Qing law the widow had no right of succession, only the right of administration of the family assets. Married daughters had to move out of the house and unmarried daughters upon marriage were entitled to a dowry suitable to the standing of the family. As you can imagine, this caused a lot of disputes. Widows would try to keep the power of administration while sons would want the money in their hands as soon as possible. There were also disputes between the main wife and the concubines.

In 1976 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was extended to Hong Kong, but international conventions have no legal effect until implemented by local laws, so women were only given the same statutory rights as men in Hong Kong when the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance was passed in 1991. After that we had the Sex Discrimination Ordinance enacted in 1995 and the setting up of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

But the big change came with education. Traditionally, if a family could only afford to educate one child then the boy would be prioritised. Even where families could afford to educate their girls, some still opted not to do so because they were opposed to girls learning too much. Having nine years compulsory education for boys and girls only started in 1978.

Another factor was the development of legal aid and the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme (CSSA). All this was developed in the 1970s. Before that women were forced to tolerate their husband’s cruelty as they had no means to support themselves outside the family. The availability of social services supported such women.’

Why then do you think, despite the availability of education and better equality, are we still seeing such a disparity in the ratio between men and women in senior positions?

Elsie Leung: ‘Traditions are hard to change. Many women still feel that they should not be better than men, for example. In the 1980s there was a survey comparing women’s attitudes in Hong Kong, Beijing and Guangzhou. The respondents were asked whether they would be afraid of doing better than their spouses. In Beijing the answer was no. This was probably because, since the establishment of the PRC, everyone in mainland China as a state worker got the same wages per month and there were no distinctions between males and females. In Guangzhou the response was 50/50, but in Hong Kong a majority of women said they would be afraid to do better than their spouses for fear that it would harm their marital relationship. I think this is still a factor now – sometimes women do not want to be promoted as it might hurt their family relationship.’

Susie Cheung: ‘According to a World Bank report published in 2012, there were more women than men studying in universities in 60 countries it researched. Recent statistics released by the European Union in 2012 showed that 60% of the graduates from universities in the EU’s 27 states are women.

In Asia too, women account for half of all graduates, but they still remain under-represented at senior levels of corporations. Some commentators argue that it will simply take time for these women to get to the top, but research and experience elsewhere suggests that this is unlikely to be the case. A rise in female graduates in Europe has had only a marginal effect on women’s representation on boards. In the case of Hong Kong, research undertaken by management consultants McKinsey in 2012 showed a significant attrition rate for women as they progress through the corporate pipeline: university graduates (54%), mid-to-senior management (23%), board (9%) and CEO (2%). The same pattern applies throughout Asia. Thus, if companies want to see more women in their leadership teams, they will have to address the cultural and organisational issues identified above.’

What should businesses do to make workplaces more family friendly?

Susie Cheung: ‘Progress towards higher representation of women in senior positions is likely to require action by governments, the wider business community and individual companies. The initiative taken by Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEx) introducing a code provision in Hong Kong’s Corporate Governance Code requiring all listed issuers to have and to disclose a policy on board diversity, effective 1 September 2013, is definitely a step in the right direction. While regulators and the government clearly have an important role to play in focusing the community’s attention on this issue, initiatives to promote and implement gender diversity in board and senior management positions should also be taken up by companies. A commitment by companies to implement all or some of the initiatives covered by McKinsey’s Women Matter 2010 report – such as options for flexible working conditions and support services to help reconcile work and family life – would go a long way to providing a conducive environment to groom more women leaders for the future.’

Elsie Leung: ‘Some big companies like HSBC now have crèche facilities, but this is rare in Hong Kong.’

Should Hong Kong consider imposing quotas to raise the number of women on boards?

Elsie Leung: ‘I think things will evolve without a revolution. Better education leads to better opportunities. In Hong Kong we also have the benefit of domestic helpers. This has enabled women who want to work to do so. I think the best way to achieve equality is through equal competition rather than a quota system which would risk elevating people who are not the best candidates for the job.’

Susie Cheung: ‘I agree with Elsie’s comment that, ultimately, the advancement of women to board and senior management positions should be determined by merit. The issue of whether or not to impose quotas for women on boards was extensively considered by HKEx during the consultation which led to the latest amendment to the Corporate Governance Code concerning board diversity. The reasons given by HKEx for
not imposing quotas on issuers’ boards included, firstly, that diversity should not be restricted to gender. It was considered that a diversity of perspectives could be achieved by ensuring a broad spectrum of characteristics and attributes are represented, such as age and directors’ cultural, educational and professional backgrounds. Secondly, a quota system might encourage the appointment of family members or recruiting “token women” who might lack independence. Moreover, selecting board members on the basis of gender or other specific characteristics was precisely the kind of stereotyping that society should be seeking to avoid. Thirdly, measures relating to board diversity are relatively new to the Hong Kong regulatory regime and making any new board diversity requirements subject to our “comply or explain” regime gives issuers the time and flexibility to work out their own approach.

I think these represent cogent and sensible arguments against the imposition of quotas. That said, in countries where the business environment is strongly male-dominated the imposition of quotas could kick-start the process of increasing the participation of women in boardrooms.’

What do you think of the argument that there are not enough suitably qualified women available for board positions?

Elsie Leung: ‘Another government initiative has been to compile a list of women who have indicated an interest in being nominated for appointments, but few women know about this list.. The other thing is directors’ induction courses. These will help prepare women for directorships.’

Susie Cheung: ‘As I mentioned earlier, women graduates both in Hong Kong and around the world, now account for half or more of the total number of university graduates. There is therefore no shortage of female graduates entering the labour pool. Due to the many barriers mentioned above, however, few women make it to the top of the corporate hierarchy. I think the business community in Hong Kong should adopt initiatives to promote the supply of board-ready women in Hong Kong.

The Women’s Foundation, formally established in 2004, has been working with institutional investors in Hong Kong to encourage investors to take an active part in supporting more diverse boards in their portfolio companies. The Foundation is also working with executive search firms to develop a voluntary code of conduct for board searches to ensure that companies are presented with a diverse range of candidates. A community of female directors is being built to provide a platform for networking and mutual support to help sponsor and mentor aspiring women directors. The Foundation is also partnering with local and international organisations to deliver professional development and training for experienced and aspiring female directors. In addition, Community Business has published a guide entitled Improving Governance through Board Diversity.

The HKICS, too, is in the process of launching its own gender diversity initiatives, such as organising “board-ready” seminars with speakers drawn from a panel of women role models, executive search firms and professional consultants who can share their views and experiences on gender diversity with fellow members of the Institute who may aspire to become board directors. Members should look out for such seminars on the HKICS website since they will provide them, not only with the knowledge they need, but also with a platform for networking and support in the future.’

Do women have a different leadership style from men?

Elsie Leung: ‘I don’t want to generalise and say that women are better than men, but boards make decisions and policy and if you have contributions from the best of both men and women then you will make better policy. If women don’t have the same opportunities to contribute as men, you lose the benefit of their input.’

Susie Cheung: ‘Based on academic research and other empirical studies, there is little doubt that women’s leadership style is different from that of their male counterparts. Research conducted by McKinsey indicates five leadership qualities that women tend to excel in (namely, people development, expectations and rewards, role model, inspiration and participative decision making). Men, on the other hand, are generally strong in other leadership behaviours such as taking individual decisions and corrective decisions when things go awry.

Women’s leadership qualities are likely to have an influence on the organisational health of companies. In a study by NASA on the impact of mixed-gender crews, it was found that crew members reported a general sense of “calmer missions” when women were on board. Also, 75% of male crew members noted
a reduction in rude behaviour and improved cleanliness – no bad thing when packed into a confined space for a long period of time! In short, the participation of women on boards could lead to a better mix of leadership skills.

Better board diversity could also lead to better corporate governance. Following the scandals at several large corporates in the late 1990s, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 in the US and the Higgs Review of Corporate Governance in 2003 in the UK called for greater balance on boards to offset the relative lack of independent advice and to reduce the homogeneity of directors. A study of Canadian companies showed that boards with three or more women performed much better in terms of governance than companies with all male boards. The study found that more gender-diverse boards were more likely to focus on clear communication with employees, prioritise customer satisfaction, and consider diversity and corporate social responsibility.

Most interestingly, studies have also shown that there is a correlation between female management and risk aversion. A report compiled by Professor Nick Wilson at Leeds University Business School showed that having at least one female director on the board appears to reduce a company’s likelihood of becoming bankrupt by 20%, and that having two or three women directors lowered the likelihood of bankruptcy even further. Another study showed that companies with women at board level are more likely to have lower levels of debt gearing than their peer group where there are no women on board. Lower relative debt levels have been a useful determinant of equity market outperformance over the last few years.’

Finally, can I ask you both to talk about your own personal background. We often have feedback from readers that learning about senior members’ careers can be an inspiration to those on the way up.

Susie Cheung: ‘I studied law in London in the late 1970s and obtained both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at University College, London. On graduation, I was offered articled clerkship with a leading law firm in the City of London – an enviable good fortune as in the early 1980s, graduates of non-English origin would be offered articled clerkship typically only with very small or suburban law firms.

I returned to Hong Kong and have been with the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation (HKMC) as its General Counsel and Company Secretary since its establishment in 1997. The HKMC is owned by the Hong Kong government through the Exchange Fund, but operates as a commercial entity, and the Financial Secretary
serves as its Chairman. To date, I have served under five successive Financial Secretaries of Hong Kong as my Chairman, and two Chief Executives of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority as my Deputy Chairman in a sizeable board ranging between 16 to 18 members.

This can be a daunting experience. The greatest challenge comes when one has to point out at board meetings that certain of the proposals under discussion may be untenable. That truly requires confidence in one’s legal competence, as well as the courage of conviction to do what is ultimately in the best interest of the HKMC. In order to ensure that the “dose of medicine” will be well received by the board, you need to decide how best to present your advice. Hence, this is not a job for the faint-hearted and you will need to keep honing your legal skills and competence all the time. On the other hand, there can be tremendous satisfaction when a job is professionally done.

“Few things are impossible to diligence and skill,”said that great man of letters Dr Samuel Johnson. “Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance”. So, keep your dreams alive and reach for the stars: you will soon find that there is a lot you can achieve!’

Elsie Leung: ‘When I matriculated in early 1968 there was only one university in Hong Kong at the time – The University of Hong Kong – and there was no law school. None of my family was in the legal profession, but a university entrance qualified you to enter into articles of clerkship with a solicitor and I looked around for a law firm to take me on. Many solicitors said that girls are not serious about studying law, they just want the qualification. They said women will just go to the ladies room to powder their noses and disappear for shopping! They didn’t believe I was serious about it.

After going around from firm to firm for six months, I was taken on by a very senior solicitor. In those days many clients could not communicate with the solicitors as they could not speak English. So they communicated with Chinese-speaking clerks and those clerks could take a commission on the business they brought in. So I got a lot of cases.

Anyway, I completed my clerkship and started my practice in 1968. In those days less than 10% of lawyers were female and many of those women were confined to conveyancing and were not going to court. I tried to do everything in order to get experience and at one time I had 400 cases in hand, all related to a defunct bank. In those days there were a lot of tenancy disputes, landlords would often try to drive out tenants to raise the rent. For me, law is not really about winning cases, it’s about resolving disputes. In fact law is the oldest form of social service and that was the goal I tried to fulfill when carrying on my practise.

 

In 1997 I joined the government, I was 58 at the time. The Attorney General, now called the Secretary of Justice, was not Chinese and had to be replaced so I was asked by the first HKSAR Chief Executive to join the government as the first Secretary of Justice. I found myself heading a department of 300 lawyers and about 1000 staff. luckily I had very good colleagues and I did not need to take care of the administration side of the job. Also, before the handover I had organised a working group to study legal issues relevant to the transition, that gave me some knowledge of what the transition was all about. I was also helped by the fact that my career had given me experience of the basics of legal practise, so my staff could not tell me that this or that could not be done.

Nevertheless it was quite a challenge. In private practise all you need to do is satisfy your client, but now six million people were my boss and it is difficult to satisfy six million people. Having been born and brought up in Hong Kong, though, I believed that if you are faced with a challenge, you must not run away from it but rise to it. In many ways, it turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would be. Everyone was working to ensure the transition worked. We had the basic law which could not be altered and gave a very solid foundation and then we had the common law which is very versatile. Our task was to make them work together. This turned a new page for the development of our legal system.

On the one hand it was very challenging but on the other it was fascinating. Anyway, I stayed with the government for eight years and, after a period of “sanitisation” as they call it, I returned to private practise. Currently, I am a consultant for Iu, Lai & Li, and deputy director for the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee, in which capacity I attend Standing Committee meetings in Beijing.’

Elsie Leung received the ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award and Susie Cheung received the ‘Outstanding Achievement’ award at the ‘Asia Women in Business Law Awards 2012’.

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