We have long been reading headlines on Hong Kong’s labour shortage. Proposed solutions include importing more employees from overseas or enhancing schemes for young local talent. Whilst targeting these two populations make sense, there is another, often overlooked segment of the population that could significantly contribute to our economy: women.
In Hong Kong, just 54% of women participate in the workforce. This is in contrast to the 66% of men in paid employment and female workforce participation rates in neighbouring economies such as Australia with 76.2% and Singapore with 62%.
Within the female population, when it comes to employment, there are several sub-populations that have been overlooked and understudied. This is why a recent study from the University of Hong Kong is a welcome addition, providing us with critical findings as to why four key populations are not currently engaged in paid employment: women in their 40s and 50s, ethnically diverse women and homemakers from lower income households.
Across all the target groups surveyed, childcare responsibilities are the most common reason to leave the workforce and a frequently cited reason for not re-entering it. Many note there simply are not enough accessible and affordable childcare options available. Eldercare responsibilities are also a concern for these groups, which complements findings from TWF’s research on this topic. Whilst there are government welfare services to assist in this regard, less than 10% of the women surveyed use child and elder care services, many citing lack of awareness.
Beyond caregiving responsibilities, a significant proportion of women in all target groups who had previously held a paid job have faced discrimination at work. Up to 60% reported discrimination or humiliation, and note this experience deters them from re-entering into the workforce. More than any other group, women aged 50 and above noted specific instances of age discrimination and ethnically diverse women noted instances of racial slurs.
For the 26-37% of the target group population who are looking for employment, it’s not easy. The majority want some flexibility in their working hours and a job with a short commute so they can still take up caregiving responsibilities. Some women in the 50 and over group find it difficult to get job offers, particularly those with salaries commensurate of their previous work experience. Some ethnically diverse women face discrimination when seeking employment services from NGOs or the Labour Department.
These findings should spur us all into action. With a falling birth rate and rapidly ageing population, Hong Kong can use every pocket of talent at its disposal and workforce plans should maximise the inclusion of mature age women, ethnically diverse women and homemakers from low-income households. To do so, we need to employ a holistic approach to boosting female workforce participation, an issue TWF has long advocated for.
At a government and employer level, this includes reviewing childcare and eldercare support including in terms of awareness and uptake, part-time and flexwork options, return to work programmes, gender biases and gender-based discrimination in the workplace, among other solutions. It also includes creating an inclusive organisational culture for long term retention and adjusting the job hiring process to allow for more diversity across a range of factors including gender, race, socioeconomic status and age, recognising the value, skills and perspective these women bring to the workforce. Let’s get to work.
Get in touch at Fiona.Nott@twfhk.org.