2017 has been a year of global awakening about gender issues in the workplace. Earlier this year, a former Uber engineer published this damning account of her experiences at the company, shining a spotlight on the endemic sexism in the technology sector. From Silicon Valley, to Hollywood, to the U.K. Parliament, and even here in Hong Kong, women are finding the courage to speak out and share their personal stories. On social media, hundreds of thousands of people in more than eighty countries have tweeted the hash tag “Me Too” in the wake of allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, hinting at the scale of the issue at hand.
These situations are born of an imbalance of power, and whilst sexual harassment in the workplace can affect all genders, it often occurs when men in high positions take advantage of vulnerable women. But it is the wider culture of inequality in the workplace that has historically enabled these incidents to be swept under the carpet, their victims silenced and their aggressors let off with a slap on the wrist.
It is hard to solve a problem we do not fully understand, or even see. According to McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, this is one of the reasons why, despite high levels of commitment to gender diversity, actual progress is slow and may even be stalling. Their annual Women in the Workplace study seeks to track the status of women in corporate America. This year, the study draws on data from 222 companies employing more than 12 million people, as well as a survey of 700,000 employees. Some interesting findings of this study:
- Women start off already at a disadvantage. Despite representing 57% of recent college graduates, fewer women than men on average are being hired at the entry level.
- Women start to fall behind from that first crucial jump from entry level to manager – they are 18% less likely to be promoted – and they continue to lose ground at every step of the corporate ladder.
- At the C-suite, women represent just 20% of employees. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the gap is more pronounced for women of colour, who represent just 3% of employees at this level.
- Employee attrition does not appear to be a result of women leaving the workforce to focus on family. Women and men are leaving their companies at about the same rate, and just as many men as women say they plan to leave to focus on family, a surprisingly low 2% of those surveyed.
- One of the “blind spots” identified was that both women and men do not perceive there is a problem with the status quo. Nearly 50% of the men and a third of the women surveyed considered women to be well represented in leadership in companies where only one in ten senior leaders is a woman.
Another area of inequity that is gaining public attention is pay. In the UK this year, 10th November was dubbed Equal Pay Day, the day where, in effect, women begin working for free due to the pay gap. A recent report from the Hong Kong Government shows that Hong Kong’s gender pay gap stands at 22.2%, up from 19.1% compared with a decade ago and double that of Singapore. Using the same logic, Equal Pay Day in Hong Kong would therefore fall on 11th October. Whilst other countries are making progress, Hong Kong has taken a step backwards, and according to Oxfam, the impact is biggest for the poorest and most vulnerable women in our city.
Studies have shown that companies with more women in leadership positions are more profitable, so it’s time to turn commitments into action. Gender equality starts with understanding the scope and scale of the issue, and that requires greater transparency and accountability from companies. The UK government has set a deadline for all companies to disclose their gender pay gap by April 2018. The new legislation will apply to businesses with 250 or more employees based in England, Scotland or Wales. PwC UK is one of the leading companies that is already reporting and has voluntarily disclosed pay gap information since 2014. In Hong Kong, we still have much work to do. CSR Asia recently looked at into sustainability disclosure of Hang Seng Index companies, and found that only 11 of the 50 companies (22%) disclose a comprehensive picture of the diversity of their workforce and boards. Only two companies, Hang Lung Properties and Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, report the ratio of basic salary and remuneration of women to men.
According to one study from 2016, women represent just 12.4% of board members at the top 50 companies listed on the Hang Seng Index (HSI). But there are local efforts to push for greater gender diversity on boards. The 30% Club Hong Kong is advocating for the increasing the percentage of women directors on all HSI company boards to 20% by 2020, as well as pushing for stronger regulation on this issue. We have a bit further to go to achieve this, but hopefully the increased public attention and awareness of gender issues and our innate “blind spots” will translate into progress towards greater equality for women in the workplace.