The Women’s Foundation’s gender balancing mission is making empowerment possible
To help increase the number of women in decision-making and leadership positions in Hong Kong, The Women’s Foundation (TWF) – a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls in Hong Kong – launched its Mentoring Programme for Women Leaders back in 2009. Starting with 60 participants – 30 “protégés” and 30 mentors – and no sponsorship, the programme has grown rapidly, with a record 32 companies signing up for the 2015-16 iteration.
“The organisation researches everything it tackles very thoroughly,” says programme manager Amy Russell. “We looked at mentoring programmes in the US and Europe and found few cross-industry programmes for women as structured as ours. Elsewhere they tend to be more industry specific and in-house.”
Russell explains that the programme has grown to such an extent that a Mentoring Programme Alumni Group currently has over 300 members, who spread the word about TWF and its work. Meanwhile, a Male Allies chapter is being formed and should be introduced around the end the 2015.
“We encourage every participant to have clear objectives from the outset,” Russell says. “All say they come away with increased confidence. Some successfully transition into the role of their dreams, others get promotions or pay increases, while some start their own businesses.”
Investment company KKR will be sponsoring the programme for a fifth successive year. Its website suggests that few, if any, senior positions in the firm are filled by women.
“Statistically, this is quite consistent with our industry peers,” says Susan Hutchison, Asia-Pacific head of human resources for the firm. “It is something we are working very hard to address and there is considerable effort being made to increase our gender mix [at] all levels across the firm, especially at the most senior ranks.”
She adds that TWF’s programme helps improve gender diversity in the workplace, which enhances decision making, innovation and corporate culture. “[It] supports this outcome by offering a strong platform for rising women professionals to adopt the learnings of established female executives to enhance their full potential and succeed in a corporate environment. The programme’s mission aligns with KKR’s own focus to support innovation, entrepreneurism and diverse thinking. By supporting TWF, we are also helping to foster a more inclusive corporate ecosystem to the shared benefit of businesses across Hong Kong.”
Russell explains that all participants – mentors and protégés – are women. “Some [similar] programmes have male mentors, but feedback tells us our protégés are most comfortable with the idea of women supporting women and women as role models.”
Protégés should have a minimum of five year's full-time work experience, be motivated to improve themselves and eager to share. There is no set critiera for mentors beyond a minimum 10 years' experience in senior management positions, plus a strong desire to see the next generation of women achieve their full potential.
TWF invites would-be mentors and protégés to apply for a place in one of six scheduled information sessions. Even these preliminary sessions have waiting lists. Out of 600 attendees, about half actually apply for the 100 available places. “We interviewed 170 people before reaching our total of 50 protégés and 50 mentors for this year,” Russell says. “Unfortunately, expansion is limited by available venue space. Our programme is very structured, offering a wide range of personal and professional-oriented sessions; many are highly interactive, which would be challenging in bigger venues. We have talked about expanding to a possible 110 or 120 participants, maximum. But some competition for places is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Claire Goodchild, executive director of Morgan Stanley Asia, applied to be a mentor because TWF’s programme is closely aligned with what she tries to achieve in-house. “I lead diversity inclusion for Morgan Stanley as part of a continuing effort to attract, develop and promote women,” she says. “On a personal level I wanted to understand the special challenges faced by women in Hong Kong in addition to those of women in the firm whom I already mentored.
“I experienced a robust programme with strong structure and engagement. Looking back, I see how to apply what I have learned to make my in-house programmes work. After a year as a mentor for the programme’s sixth cycle, I’m delighted to be joining the steering committee. Lengthy chats with my protégé, Jenny Chan, gave me great insight into issues that I was already familiar with conceptually, but it was different to ‘live’ experience of getting recognition in the corporate environment, building relationships with colleagues and stakeholders.”
Goodchild’s protégé, Jenny Chan, is assistant vice-president in the general counsel division of Credit Suisse Hong Kong. Like many protégés, she approached the programme wanting to find out more, rather than simply to set goals.
“I had just changed my job into a rather different field in a new organisation and I was newly married. Networking was the greatest single benefit that I derived from the mentoring programme. Claire and others whom I met and got to know during the year are from different industries, ages and backgrounds. They made me realise that experiences of women in other industries or from other cultures are similar.”
“At the outset I lacked confidence and tended always to be the apologetic, shy ‘Asian girl’. It was good to find others with similar experience,” Chan said. “Claire helped me negotiate with stakeholders and acquire other soft skills. She was willing to listen and based on her own experience, she made suggestions as to what might work. I feel I’ve become more confident and more capable as I have elevated my soft skills.”
“Sometimes it takes an outsider to clarify objectives and expectations,” says Goodchild. “My own experience is that women – and men for that matter – don’t always get the feedback that they need. We had some very good conversations. Everyone in Hong Kong is so busy, time is precious: we had to schedule a long chat at least once a month. We set dates in our diaries, always met at the same place for coffee. Occasionally we had to re-schedule, but we never missed a month.”
“Phone calls and e-mails are possible ways to maintain contact,” says Russell. “Face Time works for some. Like any relationship, it takes time to develop a good understanding between mentor and protégé. We do quarterly surveys asking them separately about progress. The success rate is high and we rarely see anything negative about low engagement issues.”
“Participants appreciate that busy women commit their time to this project,” says Chan. “After the graduation I came away hoping that in the future I can also give something back in a similar way. Just talking to people and attending workshops made me think about what I’m doing now. The workshop ‘Letters to my younger self’ made me realise other people have had similar experiences. The whole programme made me a better communicator. I’ve learned assertiveness and relationship building.”
From a mentor’s viewpoint, Goodchild says “Letters to my younger self” provided a good lesson about navigating organisations. “All women – and men – experience similar misgivings. We ask ourselves whether we are influencing decisions and whether we have the right network. I realised I should take some of my own advice.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Righting the scales.