Hong Kong’s demographic troubles are widely known; rock-bottom birth rates and sky-high life expectancy pose a clear challenge to the workforce’s ability to sustain an ever-growing elderly population. In this context, the chief executive rightly prioritizes maximizing the workforce by encouraging her fellow mothers to either stay in their jobs or return to work.
Yet it seems many women are not so enthusiastic about the opportunity to contribute to Hong Kong’s economy. Given this disconnect between what the government might like and what women are prepared to do, it seems clear something should be done to “square the circle”.
Two months ago I put out a call for women who are returning to work from maternity leave or longer career breaks to volunteer to be coached by me. I wanted a better understanding of the issues these women face.
The response was overwhelming. I had planned to offer free coaching to a few new clients but this number was reached within hours of the offer being announced. Judging by the number of responses, it very quickly became apparent that my appeal to support women returning to the workforce had touched a raw nerve.
The women who approached me varied in terms of age, ethnic backgrounds and the career level they had reached before taking a career break. Nevertheless, I quickly recognized some recurring themes. These included anxiety about how to address the gap on their resumes and not being aware of possible options for part-time or flexible work. Other themes were not seeing a possibility of returning to the roles they had before taking a break, since these required them to work overtime and make extended trips abroad along with negative experiences of applying to positions through agencies which never got back to them — this in turn affected their already shaken confidence. Last but not least was the conflicting roles their networks of families and friends seemed to play in them finding their way back to work.
I felt myself compelled to find not just answers but identify who should be responsible for solving the issues these women face. I thought about contacting recruiters to understand if they indeed ignored applications from women with career breaks and with employers to find out if they indeed did not offer part-time work or flexible work. I wanted to map the different parties who play a role in the journeys women take to go back to work in order to find out where the responsibility lies.
Is it the government, which could do so much more in terms of childcare provision or decent maternity and paternity rights? Or is it employers who benefit from the local culture of working long hours and implicitly (or explicitly) place the risk of being replaced by younger and cheaper people over the heads of employees who only work their contracted hours? Or is it within families themselves, who have yet to truly adapt to conflicting roles of being a mother, wife and “career woman”.
Perhaps it is all of the above. For women to combine work and having a family the challenges are endless, complex and on many levels. Supportive policies and diversity boards are steps in the right direction but we perhaps need to see a transformation of attitudes and, possibly, empathy. Women are judged if they go back to work and they are judged if they do not. They are replaceable by men who are expected to work all hours and by other women who choose to either forego childbearing or make compromises based upon unrealistic expectations.
The issue about going back to work is personal and societal. Judgments play a great role in shaping the environment women operate in. Judgments by bosses who do not understand the challenges women face which can translate into unrealistic expectations. Judgments of employers, colleagues, friends and family who seek to explain away women deciding to quit their jobs by looking for answers in their private life.
In 2015, the United Nations estimated that not properly integrating women into the labor market cost the global economy US$90 billion in output every year. In the same vein, Goldman Sachs estimated Japan’s gross domestic product would be 15 percent bigger if female labor participation matched that of men. In Hong Kong, in these days of ultra-low birth rates, shortage of experienced labor and population aging, the impact is magnified.
We need to have men and women, with or without children, who empathize with others with children. People who do not sit in judgment, but rather ask “what can we do to keep this talented woman?” Not only is it “right”, it gives women their rightful opportunities to contribute to our society and it certainly works to everybody’s advantage.
The author is a recruitment specialist and a return-to-work coach.