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Too little, too late: Hong Kong’s efforts to get more women into boardrooms are a good first step, but not enough according to panel of diversity experts

While companies across the world are introducing new measures to increase diversity through progressive hiring practices, in the boardroom Hong Kong still lags behind, with only 19.1% of the city’s board seats being held by women as of July 2023. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEx) has introduced new regulations that require all listed companies to have at least one female board member by the end of 2024, but some critics argue that these new rules aren’t enough to create meaningful change.

To discuss possible solutions to Hong Kong’s board diversity issue, the FCC held a panel discussion in early October with three experts: Fiona Nott, CEO of the Women’s Foundation, Tim Payne from Brunswick, and May Tan – the former CEO of Standard Chartered Bank HK. Moderating the discussion was FCC Correspondent Board Member Karen Koh.

The conversation began with the panel discussing why diversity is important in the first place and whether or not it has an effect on a company’s performance.

“Gender equality and the advancement of women is an imperative that benefits everyone. It benefits society, business, the economy,” said Nott, who then provided statistics from her organization’s research.

May Tan, Fiona Nott, and Tim Payne. Photo: FCC

According to The Women’s Foundation, companies that prioritize gender equality experience a 60% increase in profitability, productivity, and their ability to attract and retain talent. Also, solving the gender gap across the world would contribute US$12 trillion to global GDP.

Nott also noted that Hong Kong as a society is quite rule-heavy, whereas if there is no rule — especially in reinforcing diversity initiatives — then nothing happens.

Payne also chimed in regarding rules. HKEx has announced that all companies listed on the HK Stock Exchange must have at least one woman on their boards by the end of 2024, but to Payne, a target of 30% is more likely to bring change.

“Why 30 percent?” he asked. “Not because it’s a target, but because once you get to about a third of any organization cognitively diverse, then people stop questioning the diversity and start thinking about the value of the organization itself.”

Tim Payne. Photo: FCC

To Payne, one of the reasons why Hong Kong hasn’t been able to reach its diversity targets is due to the lack of government support and mandates that other countries across Asia have developed over the past decade.

“If you go back ten years, we were beating Singapore, we were beating Malaysia, we were beating Japan, we were beating South Korea, and now we’ve seen several of these countries come past us,” he said.

Tan, as the panelist with multiple board experiences throughout her career, was invited to share her thoughts on gender inequality, particularly in how a lack of opportunities and resources prevents women from giving back to their respective societies.

“What you’re telling me is that society is actually paying for the education of these women who are not really able to contribute to the wider society,” she said. ”They need to have the opportunity to give back to society and contribute.”

Karen Koh, May Tan, and Fiona Nott. Photo: FCC

Tan also echoed the other panelists when giving her opinion on the government’s board initiatives for 2024.

“I’m very pleased to see that we have now got an end to all single-gender boards in 2024. But honestly, in my view, it’s too little too late, because an end to single-gender boards will mean one woman… one woman is not enough to change the tone in the boardroom,” she said.

Watch the full talk on our YouTube channel below:

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