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A more effective mix

Despite more women now entering the accountancy profession than men, gender stereotyping is still holding them – and the whole profession – back

According to the Gender Diversity Survey 2011, the first of its type on the extent of gender inequalities in the financial sectors of Asia Pacific, four in 10 (39%) financial professionals from Hong Kong and China believe that they have been discriminated in the workplace or are aware of others being discriminated.

Conducted in November 2011 by global online recruitment firm eFinancialCareers in partnership with The Women’s Foundation, the survey polled 374 financial professionals from Hong Kong and China. Fifty-four per cent of the respondents were male and the rest were female. Over half (53%) of the finance professionals surveyed said that there is a gender income gap in the financial services industry. Male-female income disparity appears more prevalent in higher-powered positions – 51% said there is a significant gap in pay in top managerial positions. Forty-two per cent believe being a man makes it easier to get promoted. And 34% sensed a gender bias in the recruitment process.

‘Do I think equality in financial services is a problem? Yes, I do,’ says Kay McArdle, board chair of The Women’s Foundation, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of Hong Kong’s females. ‘The results further support that women are not represented, despite being successful from a financial perspective.’

China ranked 61 in the sixth annual World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2011. Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden have maintained their top global rankings in the last five years, she says. In Hong Kong, the Sex Discrimination
Ordinance was introduced in December 1996. But, according to Community Business, a not-for-profit group which champions the role of women in the Asian corporate world, women make up just 2% of the CEOs and 9% of board members of companies listed on the Hang Seng Index.

‘Gender stereotyping which works against women is still prevalent, both in the upper sector of the job market and at home. Such biases, though perhaps more subconscious than explicit, hold back capable women from advancing as far as their abilities allow, says Lam Woon-Kwong, chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

The EOC received 24 job-related sex discrimination complaints up to November 2011, up from 16 in 2010. By stereotyping and confining female staff from contributing their best, companies waste talents and missed business opportunities, Lam says. McArdle agrees, saying that women within financial services have proven themselves to be a ‘real asset’.

‘A firm which has some women in its highest leadership ranks will have higher earnings per share, a higher return on equity, and stock prices than competitors with few or no senior women. And that’s been held up by research,’ McArdle says.

Male bravado
George McFerran, head of Asia Pacific of eFinancialCareers, spearheaded the survey after receiving more enquiries from his clients on how to retain talent. The survey shed light on the root causes of gender bias: 57% of respondents believe that men are more likely to put themselves forward for promotions.

‘They believe that men are more aggressive when it comes to pushing for opportunities and pay rises. That perhaps explained why the gap exists,’ McFerran says.

Without a study, the extent of gender equality in the accountancy sector is unknown and the EOC do not break down complaints by industries. But according to professor Judy Tsui, chair professor of accounting at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), men still dominate the partnership ranks of accountancy firms.

‘Though there is an increasing trend that more women make it to the partnership ranks, the top ranks are still predominantly male,’ Tsui says. ‘

‘In a Chinese society like Hong Kong, the prescribed gender role for women is still very much for them to take up childcare and domestic responsibilities, making it hard for women to make advances in career as they have to juggle family responsibilities and career aspirations,’ Tsui says.

EOC founding chairperson Fanny Cheung Mui-ching agrees, adding that a lack of work-life balance in the accountancy industry is also a factor.

‘People in accounting work long hours until late evening. It makes it difficult for women because most of them have to care for their family,’ says Cheung, director of the Gender Research Centre of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

‘If they choose to spend more time to take care of their family, they must give up career advancement as it requires a lot more involvement from them.’

Rosanna Choi, immediate past chairman of ACCA Hong Kong and partner of accountancy firm CWCC, says ‘gender inequality still exists’ in the local accountancy sector. She notes however that gender bias in Hong Kong’s accountancy sector is less than in mainland China.

‘On the mainland, the situation is better in multinational corporations. In traditional firms, more senior positions tend to be held by men,’ Choi says. But according to legislative councillor for accountancy Paul Chan, ‘gender inequality is not so serious’ in the sector.

‘It is true that more men hold senior positions than women. It was because the total male population was much more than women in the past,’ says Chan, who is also past president of ACCA Hong Kong. ‘But in the past 10 years, there have been more women coming to the trade. The female population to male in the profession is almost 50:50.’

He says that women have taken up many senior positions in recent years, including director of accounting services, deputy director of audit, and the chief executive of the HKICPA.‘Many senior partners in the Big Four are women,’ he adds.

Choi observes that gender inequality is changing, because female accounting graduates have outnumbered males in recent years. At PolyU, out of the 176 students admitted to the 2011–12 BBA accountancy programme at the School of Accounting and Finance, 94 are female, according to Tsui.

Paternity issues
McFerran says that gender stereotyping affects men too. ‘Hong Kong doesn’t offer paternity leave. Australia offers up to 18 weeks paternity leave. And the UK offers up to 20 weeks,’ he says.

Women are also not given enough time to spend with their new born, causing some to quit their jobs. The average maternity leave in developed countries is 13 weeks on full pay. But women in Hong Kong have just 10 weeks’ maternity leave and are paid fourth-fifths of their monthly salary. Family friendly practices in workplaces are also lacking. Only 2% of the surveyed respondents said that there is onsite childcare in their firms, and only 4% reported having childcare subsidy. Only 30% respondents said their companies offer flexible scheduling or let their staff work from home.

To solve the problem, Cheung says the government must provide sustained education in schools and the community to change the culture. The EOC, which provides tailored training workshops to financial institutes, urges the government to invest much more in childcare support, as well as legislating for rights such as paternity leave.

Cheung, McArdle and others also urge businesses to promote gender diversity by providing fairer promotion opportunities and enhanced childcare policies for both male and female employees. These include allowing job sharing, home working, near workplace childcare facilities, and childcare leave.

‘They should not have stereotypes on women, and focus on their abilities. Companies must realise gender diversity is an asset,’ Cheung says.

McFerran says that the finance industry should also promote policies to help both men and women spend more time with their families.

‘As the financial services industry grows, it will increase competition for talent,’ McFerran says. ‘Making sure that its expectation gap has been bridged will be a significant way for companies to help hold on to their valuable talents and ultimately grow their businesses.’

Sherry Lee, journalist

This article first appeared in Accounting and Business magazine - China edition, May 2012


Published: 1 Aug 2012