Despite being a global financial centre, Hong Kong lags behind other countries in the region in terms of the number of women in leadership and on company boards. Fiona Nott, Chief Executive Officer at The Women’s Foundation, tells Jemelyn Yadao why there is a business case for gender diversity, not just a social one, and the role of CPAs in achieving gender equality
While volunteering in New Delhi for a non-profit focused on girls’ education, Fiona Nott saw upfront the gender equality issues that plagued society in India. She returned to Hong Kong inspired by her trip – but with the need to know whether Hong Kong really was any better.
“I think when you work in business in Hong Kong, you have a perception that it is an advanced city and we all see there are many women leaders in business as well as in law and finance. But when you look deep into it, the picture is quite different across the city,” says Nott, Chief Executive Officer at The Women’s Foundation (TWF). “When I saw the statistics and issues, I was quite shocked and I wanted to give back to the city that had given so much to me.”
The big picture shows the city faces a number of challenges. “As of last year, we have one in six women living below the poverty line; we have a very low female workforce participation rate at 55 percent with Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and Mainland China at 60 percent and Japan at 70 percent; we see a majority of women are graduating from university and entering the workforce in increasing numbers, but as they progress throughout their career there’s a significant drop off and we have a real drop off of female leaders when we get to management level and certainly at board level. Also, only 13.6 percent of directors at Hang Seng Index company boards are women,” says Nott. “And underlining all of that is gender stereotypes and how that leads to these issues.”
In terms of gender pay gap, Nott says that Hong Kong currently stands at 22 percent, which is worse than 10 years ago. “That’s really concerning. It’s linked to the fact that we have a low number of women progressing in their careers and we have a disproportionate number of women in low-paying jobs.”
TWF, a Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization (NGO), which was established in 2004, wants to shift those numbers. It seeks to improve the lives of women and girls in the city by focusing on three main goals: challenging gender stereotypes, empowering women in poverty to achieve a better quality of life for themselves and their families, and growing the number of women in decision-making and leadership positions. “The three goals are trying the address the whole ecosystem,” says Nott. “How we challenge gender stereotypes and educate people about it is embedded in our programmes, research, advocacy and campaigns.”
As part of its work on advancing women leaders, TWF runs its annual flagship mentoring programme, pairing 50 mid-career women with 50 women in senior roles. “We have had over 1,000 women go through the programme,” says Nott. The organization also has its Male Allies initiative, which engages with a group of male business leaders who make personal and institutional pledges for action. “We’ve seen examples of them going back to their own companies and setting up their own male allies initiatives, engaging with their women’s network, and going around, talking about diversity and inclusion in their companies,” says Nott. Gender equality is not just a women’s issue, she adds. “We cannot improve the lives of women and girls, without engaging men and boys. In particular, we need to engage men as key agents of change.”
The organization is currently planning to do more to engage with boys. “We are conducting a piece of research around young men and their attitude towards gender. We plan to build out a programme in that regard,” Nott explains. “When you look at gender stereotypes and the way we all grow up with those, they’re formed at a young age for girls and boys. The reason we want to start with young people is to build confidence in understanding and discussing gender equality and gender stereotypes.”
“For women who are working at home and have to do their work and bear those caring responsibilities or household duties, it’s a double or triple whammy.”
Gender equality in crisis
With the current COVID-19 pandemic, there is more to be concerned about. Nott is deeply disturbed by how the social implications of the pandemic are disproportionately affecting women, and worsening gender inequalities. She notes that the burdens of care work during this time are falling more on women.
“First of all, the frontline healthcare workers who are continuously fighting COVID-19, the majority of them are women. These are dangerous jobs right now and they don’t have the luxury of working from home. Lower paid jobs such as cleaners are also not able to work from home, and women make up most of them,” she says. “Then we have the other issue around caring responsibilities such as childcare and eldercare, which disproportionately fall to women and are certainly exacerbated by COVID-19 because elderly homes and childcare options are not available. For women who are working at home and have to do their work and bear those caring responsibilities or household duties, it’s a double or triple whammy.”
The day before talking to A Plus, Nott published a blog post on TWF’s website highlighting the global surge of domestic violence cases as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. “A lot of people are stuck at home with really stressful and difficult situations, and we are seeing that rise globally. We are really concerned about that in Hong Kong, and we know domestic and sexual violence hotlines have seen a 25 to 30 percent increase in calls over the past few months,” she says.
TWF has urged the government to make prevention of domestic violence, and support for victims, a key part of the COVID-19 response. “We also urge individuals and workplaces to be aware that it’s a problem, and for employers to have policies and practices around domestic violence, share resources and look out for people if they need help.”
The flex-work experiment
Around 30 percent of women in Hong Kong drop out of the workforce because of caring responsibilities, according to a survey by the Women’s Commission. Nott puts part of the blame on the city’s lack of flexible work arrangements. “The challenge that we have in Hong Kong is that flexible working is not really an option across the board, and we do work some of the longest working hours in the world,” she says.
However, with companies being forced by COVID-19 to implement work from home arrangements, Nott believes the private sector will likely see a growing openness to flexible work practices post-crisis. “As we come out of this, there will be a real conversation on the advantages and challenges of flexible working. I think the debate previously was around how it means simply working from home or having technology solutions for people to do it. Now, we’re hopefully moving towards a better debate about how to make flex work be fit for purpose for a company and for the employee. With the issues about isolation or how to make sure teams work closely together when they’re at home, people are addressing that right now in the current situation,” says Nott.
She believes companies that adopt flexible working practices could help more women reach their full potential at work. “We’re hoping that after this, there will be conversations about how to build in some of the learnings of COVID-19 into workplaces in the future,” she says.
Responding to the assumption that women in Hong Kong who have access to foreign domestic helpers don’t need flexible work arrangements, Nott says that is wrong and that the issue is more complex. “For those who do have access to foreign domestic helpers, that’s great but why are we not seeing more women in leadership? There are other issues at play that need to be addressed, such as gender biases and gender stereotypes.” The idea that childcare is readily available for everyone in Hong Kong is also a myth, she adds. “Foreign domestic helpers support only 11 percent of households in Hong Kong, so we do have issues around childcare.”
The business case
Nott believes accountants have a critical role in promoting gender diversity at companies, especially when they stay on top of how it impacts a company’s operating model and finance. “Accountants have a key role because they are at the heart of decision-making at companies. There are a lot of business discussions around, for example, diversity. We know companies with more women on their boards and more women in senior management have better returns,” she says. “So there’s a social case and a business case for diversity, and it’s important for accountants to look at the financial considerations and advise companies based on that context and where things are heading.” She points to McKinsey’s 2018 Delivering Through Diversity report, which found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 percent more likely to outperform on profitability and 27 percent more likely to have better value creation.
Nott believes the growing focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) in Hong Kong is helping to improve gender diversity. “We’re moving in the right direction but we need to do more. We feel that gender diversity is a critical element of good corporate governance. You need to have diverse perspectives, diverse opinions in a management team and at board level and a key part of that is gender diversity. We are half of the population and companies that don’t have that diversity will miss out on those perspectives,” she says. “From the social side of ESG, there is a growing push to understand a company’s role in society and its commitment to its stakeholders, and how it treats its employees. It’s not just disclosures for disclosures sake but really goes to the heart of what shareholders and stakeholders expect.”
She says TWF welcomed the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong’s changes to the ESG guide and related listing rules released at the end of last year, which include upgrading the disclosure obligation of all “social” key performance indicators to “comply or explain.” “Part of what the exchange was doing was making sure the board of directors has oversight for ESG and could consider those issues right from the top. I think it’s a positive thing,” says Nott.
“Part of the challenge for us and the work we do is that there isn’t a silver bullet to advance on this issue so you have to play the long game.”
Playing the long game
Nott, who grew up in Sydney and in London, has been interested in social justice and equality issues since she was at university in Australia. “I was involved in student politics, I worked for a human rights judge after law school, I worked for a law firm and as part of my time there I had a pro-bono practice to serve marginalized communities. So I’ve always had this commitment to social justice that I’ve tried to either bring into my work or take on outside of work,” she says.
She was sent to Hong Kong in 1998 for secondment while she worked at a law firm in Sydney. “I was moved here on two-days notice. Six months then nine months later, I was still here,” she laughs. After many years working in Hong Kong, she got involved with Room to Read, an NGO focused on girls’ education in developing countries. “I helped set up the chapter in Hong Kong then I moved to New Delhi to volunteer in their programme office for Asia, and I got to see gender equality upfront and centre in India and many other counties in Asia. That reignited my passion.”
Nott had been active in TWF’s community before becoming CEO in 2017. In 2012, she was a mentor in TWF’s mentoring programme. “It changed my life,” she recalls. “We continue to evolve the programme and it now includes peer mentoring, which is mentoring within the proteges but also mentoring within the mentors as well as one-to-one mentoring.” She was also a member of the TWF’s Women on Boards Advisory Council.
Her previous experiences working in a range of sectors and senior leadership roles helps her lead her team of 19. “I’ve been on the board of a start-up company, an entrepreneur, and I’ve done a lot of policy work in different contexts so that diversity of experience in both large organizations and small organizations, where you don’t have a lot of resources, has really prepared me for this broad role.”
Apart from gender equality, Nott is also passionate about yoga. “I’ve been doing that for a number of years. I find it fantastic physically, emotionally and mentally,” she says. She does it as a way to recharge, not to achieve work-life balance. “I don’t think anyone has found that pure balance. To me, it’s how you integrate all of these elements of life and work. My balance is actually my work and my work is my balance,” she says.
Nott acknowledges how challenging it is to achieve the TWF’s three main goals, particularly challenging gender stereotypes that are so ingrained in minds. But one thing she has learned from living and working in Hong Kong for so long, is that change can happen. “As a city, we need to have this on the agenda. That means government, society, companies and individuals making a commitment in their own space to action these issues. Part of the challenge for us and the work we do is that there isn’t a silver bullet to advance on this issue so you have to play the long game,” she says.
“I remember when I was working in business many years ago, there weren’t things like women’s networks, there weren’t any discussions about women on boards. Now, we have networks and we’re talking about women on boards. So when you put it in context and you commit to it, we can create change.”
The Women's Foundation aims to challenge gender stereotypes in Hong Kong through its research and advocacy work. Nott cites a 2018 study conducted by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which found that more than 50 percent of employers in Hong Kong do not want to hire women with children.