Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Although men and women are not equally distributed around the globe, they are more or less evenly split in number. According to the 2015 estimates by the United Nations, there are 101.8 men for every 100 women.

The latest published data by the Census and Statistics Department show that 54 percent of Hong Kong’s population is female. The ratio of male to female has decreased continuously over the past decade. In 2015, there were 931 males in every 1,000 females, compared to the ratio of 979 to 1,000 in 2005.

It follows that out of the human talent pool, women take up nearly half of the world’s total and in the context of Hong Kong, more than half. Ensuring the healthy development and appropriate use of this talent pool therefore has a vital bearing in the growth, competitiveness and future readiness of an economy.

Gender mainstreaming, the integration of gender perspectives and needs in legislation, policies or programmes, in any area and at all levels, has been established as a major global strategy for the promotion of gender equality by the United Nations since the mid 1990s. The Hong Kong Government has also taken measures in support of this strategy. For instance, the Government has applied a “gender benchmark” to appointed non-official members of advisory and statutory bodies since 2004. The benchmark then was 25 percent. As of June 2016, 31.7 percent of government appointed non-official members in advisory and statutory bodies were women.

Within Hong Kong’s solicitors’ branch, the proportion of women varies at different stages – women made up 60 percent of trainee solicitors, 59 percent of assistant solicitors, 36 percent of consultants and 27 percent of partners (data as of 17 November 2016).

These figures raise questions about the retention and advancement of women in the profession. Sixty percent of those entering the legal profession are women, yet only 27 percent of partners are female. This pattern of gender participation repeated itself with little change over the past decade. The female trainee to female partner ratios were 67 percent to 22 percent and 60 percent to 21 percent in 2005 and 2015, respectively.

Some attribute the low retention of women talent at senior levels to the additional stress required of those taking on leadership roles, which require one to be fully committed and available anytime, anywhere. The demands of work travel, attending evening business development events and rushing through late night urgent assignments can pose greater challenges to women, typically those with children. Being unavailable is generally seen as being less committed and limits career advancement opportunities.

Firms invest heavily in human capital and incur substantial costs in recruitment, education and training of their employees. However, these investments are futile if firms fail to retain their employees. Further, apart from professional knowledge, women bring a unique skill set and perspective to leadership roles and can help enrich a firm’s communication and servicing styles and expand its client base.

An increasing amount of attention has been placed on work-life balance. This is a welcoming trend for professions traditionally known to be stressful. Perhaps, the efforts can go further and encourage a gender neutral approach so that policies promoting work-life balance, such as parental leave and flexible working arrangements, are made to appeal not only to women, but to all.

The first step towards change is awareness. With the majority of new entrants to the profession being women, it is important that this talent pool is retained and fully utilised for the healthy development of our profession. Hopefully, more law firms will have gender diversity policies that are not only written down, but are actually put into practice.

Secretary-General, Law Society of Hong Kong