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What women really, really want

If a job is done well, it should make no difference whether the employee is male or female, and they should be rewarded with the same pay for the same work. It sounds like an argument based on indisputable logic, and yet the issue of the gender gap in pay is still unresolved in many countries.

Hong Kong has dealt with the issue less successfully than most. According to figures from the Census and Statistics Department report, Women and Men in Hong Kong – Key Statistics 2011, the city’s official gender pay gap stands at an average of 20 per cent, which means that women are being paid 20 per cent lower than men in the same job type and position.

This figure is 4 per cent higher than the global average, based on the International Trade Union Confederation’s gender pay gap March 2012 report, Frozen in Time.

Closer inspection shows that significant gaps in pay exist at different professional levels. In research based on 2011 data, the consulting firm Mercer unearthed some interesting figures.

At the lower levels of the career ladder, in a category Mercer calls “para professionals” – which includes, for example, secretaries – women in Hong Kong are paid 15 per cent more than men. That may be partly because of women’s superior educational achievements and their tendency to stay put in these kinds of roles for longer than average periods, which may entitle them to pay increments based on tenure.

Women are more likely than men to stay in a role even if they are not happy, says Kate Bravery, Hong Kong business leader, human capital consultant at Mercer, who says these are “good results, but not necessarily for good reasons”.

In higher-level roles, the pay gap between men and women is about 18 per cent when calculated based on base pay, and up to 23 per cent when benefits are included. In one senior role assessed by Mercer – head of human resources – there is a 23 per cent difference in the pay between men and women.

These disparities, and how to close the gap, were discussed at a panel held by The Women’s Foundation and the French Chamber on May 18. 

Panellists included Lam Woon-kwong, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), Kate Bravery, and Lelia Konyn, group human resources director at the Noble Group.  The event was moderated by Kay McArdle, board chair of The Women’s Foundation and a former lawyer specialising in employment and discrimination law.

The issue is not just about the amounts of difference in pay, but also about the scale of the problem, says Su-mei Thompson, the foundation’s CEO.

“We know so many people […] who have encountered discrimination,” she said, to widespread agreement among the audience of mainly professional women. 

Thompson suggested that Hong Kong’s commitment to free market economics partly accounts for employers’ attitude that there is nothing wrong in paying staff what you can get away with.

“The other issue for women is getting hold of the data. Most women don’t realise they are getting paid less than their male counterparts because companies aren’t transparent about pay scales,” she said.

Although the EOC is working to bring more employers to account in court, Lam said few gender pay discrimination cases are brought before it – and fewer still result in completed investigations because employers provide so many reasons for the pay difference that investigations are impossible to continue in many cases.

“[T]here must still be an element of genuine bias […] in management,” Lam said, adding that it might be that employers paid women less because they were not deemed the main breadwinners, and also because aggressive pay negotiations were not considered appropriate in Hong Kong, especially for women.

Lam said Confucian traditions of male superiority played no small part in the persistence of the gender pay gap in the city.

Some panellists said putting more women on boards could help ensure that pay decisions were also taken from a woman’s point of view, but Lam was not optimistic about relying on that approach.

He said the persistent cultural tendency to treat women differently is hard to shift, and even when promotion boards believe they were being fair and unbiased about gender in their selection of candidates, “those monsters do creep and crawl in our minds”.

Laid said he did not expect to see legislation anytime soon in Hong Kong to set a quota for the number of women on boards, adding that the best results would come from individual action by women to highlight the problem.

Women can fight against this discrimination by using the tools at their disposal, such as the media and their high education levels, Lam said. At home, women should discuss the topic with male members of the household in order to educate them about equality. Women with professional networks could bring the topic to the attention of policy and legislative decision makers, and perhaps highlight the issue of the gender pay gap at events such as International Women’s Day, which falls on March 8.

Panellists agreed that the onus was on women to speak up for themselves within their companies by researching market pay rates, learning how – and daring to – negotiate for higher pay, or considering making the decision to leave a company or a role if equal pay was not forthcoming.

On the company level, firms also need to examine their own records and data to see if they have allowed gender pay gap to persist.

“I think the most important thing is getting people to look and do the analytics,” said  Mercer’s Bravery, who noted that the pay gap tended to narrow if a company had an equal number of male and female employees.