How Hong Kong Women Can Break the Glass Ceiling

gender ratio

#TimesUp and the glass ceiling are one of the most debated topics in the past decade. With initiatives taken to promote equality in the workplace, why do we still see the glass ceiling?

Education is not the reason. At universities, women can dominate the undergraduate space with up to 60% of enrolments being females.

Furthermore, in 2018, the percentage of women with a four-year tertiary education is 35.3%, which is similar to that of men, 34.6%, in the US. The situation is similar to that here in Hong Kong, where 53.4% of young women received tertiary education, slightly higher than the 47.7% for men.

However, the equality of gender in university students does not continue when we enter the workplace.

With reference Women in the Workplace 2018, a study undertaken in the US by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey for over three decades, males take up 62% of managers. If one looks higher up in the organizational chart, they would find that there are even fewer women, as the percentage of women carrying the title of Senior Manager / Director, VP, or in the C-suite, decreases substantially down to 26%, 24%, and 19% respectively. As a matter of fact, among the 2018 Fortune 500 Companies, only 4.8% are run by a female CEO.

gender ratio

In Hong Kong, businesses with more than 500 people have an average of 22% female representation at senior management level. Among the HSI constituent companies, Hang Seng Bank is the only one with a female CEO.

gender ratio

If all young men and women start their career equally with university degrees (and let’s not forget there are more women graduating with degrees than men!), how do we explain the gender imbalance in the workplace, especially at the senior management level?

We’ve associated leaders with male figures

Tina Keifer, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Warwick developed an exercise that has been widely adopted by organizational psychologists worldwide. Through the exercise, she discovered that for many of us, the image of an effective leader appears in the form of a male. She accidentally discovered this when she was leading a workshop for non-English-speaking executives, in which she asked them to “draw an effective leader”. What’s interesting is, most drawings were an image of a male figure. And in the rare occasions when the drawings were gender neutral, the majority of participants still presented their drawing using language that indicated “he”.

gender ratio

Participants associate “leader” with male figures, such as former British Prime Miniter Wnstson Churchill (Left), or a man who looks after the community (Right).

This assumption is deeply rooted in our cultural values. Linda Burgoyne, CEO of Matilda International Hospital, pointed out that a lot of her staff still subconsciously expect the hospital to be led by a male doctor, even though the majority of the hospital staff are women themselves.

It seems then, the cultural assumption embedded in our society is one of the things that women need to fight through to get to the top.

Women are not getting the advice they need the most

Susan Colantuono, author and CEO of Leading Women, a management consulting firm that empowers women, shared in a TED talk that a lot of the advice women traditionally receive emphasize personal actions that we need to take, as opposed to advice relating to business, strategic, and financial acumen. For example, women are advised to become more assertive or confident, but not told to upskill their business acumen. This is not to say that personal development is unimportant, but conventional advice has failed to assist women in overcoming the glass ceiling. As a result, women are missing out on what differentiates them from other talents, which may be the reason why many women are promoted to middle management, but few are promoted to higher positions.

Women are facing social exclusion

McKinsey’s study also suggests that women are facing various levels of social exclusion in the workplace. These exclusions may not be intentional, but they are hindering women from progressing further in the workplace.

“The only one” experience

One in five participants in McKinsey’s report shared that they are often the only one in the office, i.e. the only woman. The phenomenon is twice as common for senior-level women and women in technical roles -- 40% of them are the only ones. On the contrary, only 7% of senior-level men are facing a similar situation.

For women, it does get lonely at the top. A study in the Strategic Management Journal looked at the female representation in the top management of S&P 1500 firm over the course of 20 years. The study discovered that if there is already a woman in top management, this actually decreases the likelihood of an additional female presence in the same team - by about 51%!

Unintentional exclusion is more common than you expect

The “only one” situation affects not only a woman’s experience in the office, but also her relationship with colleagues outside of work. Men are more likely to invite other male colleagues to hang out after work. On the surface, this might seem like nothing, just a friendly chat after work. However, it is during these social occasions where unofficial information, like a potential opening in the upper management, is passed around. These happy-hours also provide a great opportunity to connect with people from different departments, or even find a mentor at work.

It should be emphasized that these exclusions are unintentional. Women are not bullied at work; they are simply left out as she may not be perceived as “one of the guys”.

Microaggressions at work

McKinsey’s study also shows that 64% of working women have experienced microaggressions, which come in different shapes and forms. Some examples include, a woman’s opinion being neglected, their presentation interrupted, or their ability being doubted because of their gender.

While we may casually brush off these incidents, we forget that every little microaggressive action accumulates, affecting a woman’s progression at work in the long run.

The situation sounds gloomy. What can women do to progress?

From the above data, it seems that women are naturally placed at a disadvantage at the workplace. But not all hope is lost! We’ve spoken to successful women who were in your shoes, to see what ambitious and talented women can do to progress in their career.

Find someone who supports you

If you want to thrive at work, you must have a great support system. We asked Shirley Adrain, who formerly held leadership and executive positions at various investment banks, and current Director of Back to Work Hong Kong, for tips on succeeding at work. She smiled and said that, it is important to marry the right person. What does she mean by the right person?? Someone who is willing to support your career development and is the one to pass you the hammer that breaks the glass ceiling. This person not only encourages your professional development, but also gives you the personal support at home to balance family and work. For women who want both a career and a family, this partner alleviates the societal pressure from you which expects women to be in charge of the domestic household. Instead, a partnership is formed where the responsibility of family bears on both parties.

Sandy Lau, Country Director of GoBear Hong Kong, agreed that a supportive partner is crucial in a woman’s career development. She mentioned that she would often confide in her husband about her job, talking about any difficulties she has been facing. Her husband is her back-up system, always being there when she needs him. Likewise, Sandy would also pick him up whenever he needs her. She shared that having this mutual support system is what motivates her in aiming higher and achieving more in her career.

It’s okay to move on to a more supportive environment

Your support system is made up of not only the right partner, but also the right workplace. If you encounter unfair situations at work, e.g constantly have your opinions ignored, or experience sexual harassment, you should seek support from your colleagues. If you discover that your senior leaders are not supportive, take Shirley’s advice, which is to move on!

Rocio Gil Moreno, Procurement Manager at Cathay Pacific, also agreed that finding the right workplace is critical if women want to advance in their career. Rocio has worked in the traditionally male-dominated aeronautical industry for many years, and prior to Cathay Pacific, she had unfortunately experienced certain disadvantages that stemmed from her identity as a woman. For example, she felt she always had to prove her capabilities, and prove to her colleagues that she had the expertise and knowledge to do her tasks. However, at Cathay Pacific, she felt supported as the company empowers their female employees, fostering women networks where women support and motivate each other. These networks, both inside and outside of companies, are crucial in cultivating environments for women to progress.

So if women wish to advance, having a supportive network with the right partner, bosses, and colleagues in a healthy workplace culture is important.


The McKinsey report ended by predicting the number of women in management to increase by a meer 1% in the coming decade if companies continue to hire and promote women to manager at the current rates. However, if companies begin hiring and promoting both genders at equal rates, we will be looking at management level with 48% women and 52% men - a significant improvement from 1%.

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