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This article first appeared in DutchCham Magazine (May/June edition - 2021).
As “Asia's World City”, Hong Kong SAR prides itself on being a diverse society and has made considerable strides toward gender parity. As a female leader, it is my responsibility to ask difficult questions and challenge gender norms that have been historically created and followed, even during modern times.
Despite being one of the most progressive cities in the world, women in Hong Kong SAR are still undervalued by their peers and often face unfair workplace discrimination. The gender wage gap in Hong Kong SAR stands at 22%, significantly wider than Singapore’s which is at 6%. Fewer than half of companies in Hong Kong SAR would hire working mothers even if they are as skilled and experienced as other applicants.
Moreover, glass ceilings and sticky floors have long prevented women from occupying the higher rungs of the corporate ladder. A Financial Times article revealed that women make up less than 15% of board positions among the 50 Hang Seng index constituent companies.
With all these challenges and the rising tension of recent equality movements around the world, the question we should ask is, “why does gender inequality still persist?”.
wicked problems often have thorny root causes
Unhealthy and entrenched gender stereotypes have coloured the mindsets of not just leaders and hiring professionals, but also your common person. Women’s participation in leadership roles are low as the opportunities may not be available to them. For example, there is an enduring yet unproven perception that men make better leaders than women, just cause. Indirect gender discrimination against women are also prevalent, some even during the hiring process. Many also mistakenly believe that mothers would make inefficient and distracted employees.
At the same time, unconscious affinity biases might be at play. The Kellogg School has found that hiring managers tend to favour applicants that look like or remind them of themselves. It is hence “legacy-at-work” that men - who are already in decision-making positions tend to hire other men, particularly towards the later stages of the hiring process.
This is further exacerbated by the pervasive all boys’ club culture that we see in Asia, which dominates most selection processes and promotes an environment where powerful men are more likely to promote the men under them, even when women are equally or even more competent. This has led to more men holding leadership positions than women.
As a female leader, it is only fair for me to be transparent. It does take more for a woman to prove herself capable of taking on such high profile leadership roles. While it is a constant fight against human nature, that very process has forced me to grow and mature much faster. When I took on the managing director position in Randstad Hong Kong five years ago, I am not only proud to be the voice of other women who aspire the same, but also more prepared than my peers to take on new and unexpected challenges.
how to create a gender diverse workplace?
It is imperative that companies embrace a gender-equal and inclusive workforce. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense.
The benefits of gender diversity for firms - widened talent pool, better financial outcomes and prevention of groupthink - are beyond debate. Female leadership styles and traits, such as empathy and self-awareness, are especially needed now more than ever to help organisations emerge stronger from crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Everyone has a part to play to drive gender diversity and ensure greater inclusion in the workplace, specifically the HR industry. As gatekeepers and agents of change, HR professionals are best placed to challenge unfair practices and drive lasting change in the world of work.
strategies to drive gender equality, diversity and inclusions
Here are three ways in which the HR community can promote gender equality and diversity across all industries.
1. toughen anti-discriminatory policies and practices
Companies and recruiters must look beyond characteristics such as gender, sexuality and marital status. HR professionals must practise more self-awareness and avoid using gender-coded language and asking inappropriate interview questions. It would be unfair to have women defend themselves at every juncture of the recruitment process, especially when they already have what it takes to perform in the role.
We have a robust diversity and inclusion policy as well as a zero-tolerance stance on gender discrimination. Through global leadership training programmes and robust talent pipeline, we actively support and create fair opportunities for women to realise their real potential. Today, women helm 47.5% of top management positions and 66.7% of management positions at Randstad.
At the same time, firms should consider the pitfalls of diversity hire policies. Employers that intentionally hire minorities to fill diversity quotas run the risk of a decaying culture and performance. The minority group knows they are hired to meet a quota and may feel that they might not actually meet the skills requirements for the role. Other employees may perceive them as less competent, and that they only managed to secure their jobs due to preferential treatment, and not by merit. Combining all the factors, companies could essentially widen the spectrum and unintentionally create a toxic culture shrouded by distrust, falsehood and favouritism.
2. eliminate gender biases by using technological solutions wisely
Emerging technologies have created new solutions to reduce discrimination and gender bias in hiring and organisational processes. For instance, HR technology can help to provide a fairer screening process by blinding names and gender in resumes. AI-powered language detectors can be trained to detect and filter out gender-biased terminologies in job descriptions.
However, the hasty adoption of algorithms might compromise the transparency and fairness of hiring processes. The lack of time to gather new data and create new algorithms could be the reason why newer gender equality trends are not processed through machine learning. While technology enhances human intelligence, it lacks a critical element - the human instinct.
We are highly committed to fostering real connections with employees and candidates. After all, we’re in the people’s business. In fact, our global tech and touch ambition is enshrined in its ‘human forward’ brand identity. While organisations welcome data and algorithms in their processes, the impact of technology on women and other minorities must also be properly evaluated and included in technology.
3. advocate gender equality and diversity
The lack of diversity initiatives will directly impact organisational culture. The HR community should take the lead in advocating for gender diverse teams, fair and equal treatment as well as a culture of mutual respect in the workplace. This would include creating and driving activism campaigns to raise awareness on the benefits of an inclusive workplace and drive forward the adoption of anti-discrimination and equal-pay policies. HR leaders have the responsibility to address key gender gap issues such as lack of diversity in leadership, pay gap and motherhood penalty.
Jacques van den Broek, CEO at Randstad, shed light on how women’s careers have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and his desire to help redeploy some of the millions affected. Randstad’s CHRO, Jos Schut, encourages everyone in the organisation to embrace the diversity of thought and accept the differences that we bring to the company.
everyone has a part to play in achieving gender equality at the workplace
As you can see, the responsibility of championing gender equality does not just fall on women. Everyone in the organisation has a part to play in workplace equality, and it all comes down to education, awareness and the willingness to open up.
Striving for a safe work environment and equal opportunities for all will always be a work in progress. Thankfully, the HR industry has an unprecedented opportunity to move the needle by pushing for mindset shifts, gender diversity and inclusive workplaces.
According to the World Economic Forum, none of us will ever see gender parity in our lifetimes. With our consistent efforts, hopefully the daughters and sons of tomorrow will.
At Randstad, we are committed to building a diverse and inclusive workforce. People from all walks of life come to Hong Kong SAR to search for new employment where they can foster new friendships beyond the office. Find out more about our people and culture.
Gender inequality does not affect women alone. It has an impending impact on their opportunities, income, as well as on the well-being of their families. Ensure a gender bias and gender-equal work environment. Reach out to us to arm your workforce with diverse and equally skilled talents to drive your future of work.
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The Randstad Blue Suite is a collection of personal insights from the Randstad leadership team.