Career Advice Job Market Trend Report

HK female managers unhappy with prospects

Hong Kong has the least optimistic female middle managers in Asia-Pacific, according to a report by talent acquisition and management solutions provider Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS).

The report, “Engaging the Full Potential of Female Middle Managers”, polled women working at this level in Australia, the mainland, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore, and found a third of respondents here believed they will not be promoted. “Only 60 per cent of Hong Kong women were satisfied with their opportunities for progression,” says Martin Cerullo, Asia-Pacific MD of development at AMS.

This figure compares unfavourably with the results from women in Australia, the Philippines and Singapore – which all polled in the mid-70 per cent region – and even more starkly with the 83 per cent of those surveyed in the mainland who said they were happy with their chances of advancement.

“Respondents are saying they’re not confident they have the opportunity to progress in their careers. A lot of that came back to the fact that there are some very traditional management structures in place, which perhaps aren’t as open to a more diverse management and senior leadership community as in other parts of the world,” Cerullo says.

“Another aspect is the lack of infrastructure in organisations to support women’s progression in their careers. There is the sense that it is much easier to find a job externally than within the organisation.”

And while only 53 per cent of Hong Kong women were satisfied with the clarity of their career paths in their firms, the number who felt they had a good relationship with their manager wasn’t much higher, at 60 per cent.

“The reason we decided to focus on the pipeline of middle managers was because this is the key to shifting female board representation,” Cerullo says. “Most organisations tend to find they’re losing their women at middle-management level. In general across Asia and Asia-Pacific, there has been much less development of a business case for the value of a more diverse workforce and leadership than there is in places like Australia, the US and the UK. I don’t think many companies understand the benefit it has to the bottom line.”

Cerullo says that a diverse workforce better reflects the range of customers a business serves, and that companies that implement such a policy tend to perform better on stock exchanges. He also says that the traditional notion that women will inevitably want a career break to concentrate on having a family is based on a lack of understanding of a changing workforce.

“Who might want to take time out to, say, travel the world is gender irrelevant,” he says, adding that both male and female members of Generation Y are likely to seek flexibility in their career. “Overall, Hong Kong and Asia are currently behind other parts of the world in terms of flexible working. There are fewer part-time jobs, much more rigidity around working hours and less opportunity to work from home.”

But isn’t work going to be all-consuming when you’re at the very top of any sizeable organisation? “The nature of more senior management positions makes it more challenging, but I think there are plenty of examples of very senior leaders who balance all elements of their life,” Cerullo says. “It has recently been reported how some of the most successful CEOs in the world are both extreme fitness freaks and very good at spending time with their families.”

Fern Ngai, CEO of Community Business, a non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing CSR in Asia, says companies need to develop fair and efficient pipelines to ensure women get an equal opportunity to reach the top. She suggests three ways in which they can do this.

First, companies should address the institutional barriers holding women back and seek to remove them. “They should ensure their internal policies and practices do not discriminate against or disadvantage women,” she says. “For example, recruitment or promotion panels should include women.”

Second, she believes cultural attitudes and stereotypes need to be questioned. “At the heart of the issue is the fundamental challenge of how to overcome enduring perceptions of traditional gender roles and create a workplace culture that is truly inclusive of women at all levels,” she says.

Third, management needs to take responsibility for leading the change. “Companies should engage their leaders, especially men, and acknowledge their key role as champions of change,” she says.

Women themselves are not let off the hook. “This is highlighted in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In,” Ngai says. “Women are usually not as ambitious as men, and tend to undervalue and underestimate their abilities. Women should take ownership of their own careers and empower themselves, through measures such as recruiting a sponsor and/or a mentor, taking charge of their work-life balance, and identifying and influencing key stakeholders.”