Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Women and work: observations on the UK and Hong Kong

ICC, the tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong, is seen in Kowloon Peninsula, as a woman ascends on an escalator inside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, where the Asian Financial Forum is held in Hong Kong, China January 18, 2016.

Image: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Peter Mathieson
President , University of Hong Kong
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This piece is part of an in-depth series on Women at Work. For regular updates on gender issues ‘like’ our Facebook Page and sign up to The Gender Agenda weekly email digest.

Two years ago, I moved to my current role after working for 30 years in the United Kingdom, where my experience was as a doctor working in the National Health Service (NHS) and as a medical teacher, researcher and latterly academic leader in the university system. Now I lead a university in Hong Kong. The hypothesis that I explore in this article is that my chromosomal make-up has given me an unfair advantage in all these roles.

Being male has allowed me to have a family without it impeding my career, to travel extensively, including working as a medical teacher in rural Africa on numerous occasions, to interact with other males on an equal footing and possibly to earn more money than an equivalently-qualified female would have done.

Medical student populations in the UK have been predominantly female for around 25 years, yet women are still seriously under-represented at senior levels in the medical profession. The explanation that it is “just a matter of time” before this changes is not supported by the evidence.

When I was dean of a UK medical school, the meetings I attended with my fellow deans from all over the country were largely gatherings of white males. When I first met with the 10 faculty deans at the University of Hong Kong, there were 11 men in the room. In 2014, there were 110 posts at dean level or above in the eight government-funded universities in Hong Kong, of which eight – or 7% – were held by women. There has never been a female university president in Hong Kong. How can it be correct, equitable or sensible for half of the human race to be so under-represented at senior levels in the medical profession in the UK or in university leadership positions in Hong Kong?

A biological imperative but a social choice

That women have the babies is a biological imperative that seems unlikely to change. That they are expected to be the predominant carers for those children, and indeed for elderly relatives or other loved ones needing care, is a cultural norm that can be challenged and changed. Of course, some women will freely choose this path, and choice must be maintained. However, it must not be a matter of uncritical gender-based social expectation.

The UK has recently introduced a system of shared parental leave whereby either parent can take leave to look after young children, allowing their partner to continue their career. It will be interesting to see how many men take advantage of this system and how women’s career prospects are enhanced.

In the United States, it is a shocking indictment of the world’s largest economy that there is no system of maternity leave at all. In Hong Kong, many professional couples have domestic helpers, yet women are still less likely to attain senior positions in universities.

Men are part of the problem, and part of the solution

It cannot all be explained by caring responsibilities, career breaks or part-time working. There must be other barriers which need to be dismantled. Women need mentors, sponsors and role models. Some of these must be men. I am proud to have been asked to become one of the 10 university presidents worldwide to be impact champions for UN Women’s HeForShe campaign, aimed at getting men who are in senior leadership positions to speak out about gender inequity and more importantly to do something about it.

I fully appreciate that there are sensitivities around this campaign, its name and its aims, not least that it could be seen as patronizingly saying that women have failed to achieve equity so now the men must come to the rescue. However, I don’t see it like that: men are part of the problem and so men have to be part of the solution.

It must become culturally acceptable for men to subjugate their career prospects to allow women to succeed. It must become culturally unacceptable for women to receive less pay for equivalent jobs. Gender-based violence must become a thing of the past in civilized societies. Male and female attitudes, unconscious bias and conscious bias must be studied. Information is power: we need to get to a situation where we know the facts about the impact of gender on career prospects, where we understand the determinants of choice, where we can pilot schemes to achieve change, where we can know the issues better than we do today.

Where are the women leaders in academia?

In the commercial sector there is good evidence that diversity at leadership level enhances success. It is an embarrassment that in universities around the world there is under-representation of women at senior leadership levels. There is only one nation where females predominate in university leadership: that is in the Philippines, where the perceived explanation is that pay levels in universities are so low that men are not attracted to academic careers.

Everywhere else, universities need to improve their gender equity: student populations are generally female-predominant, as are administrative staff and junior academic staff. Then there is a dramatic fall-off in female representation at professorial level and in leadership posts.

Universities should be leaders of society, pinnacles of equity: currently, at least in terms of gender, they are not. Universities are also the primary location of academic research, yielding new knowledge that can improve society. I would like to see more research on gender equity: funding bodies need to support this, including governments, and academics need to see this as worthwhile and important. Only then will we understand the problem better and devise innovative mechanisms for addressing it.

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