By Nan-Hie In

We all know gender and diversity issues persist in Hong Kong and beyond as many speakers at AmCham’s Women of Influence Conference each year recount their experiences on the matter while many attendees nod along in familiarity. This event remains instrumental in sparking dialogue on these issues to help progress gender equity in various industries.

This year, business leaders highlighted areas in need of more attention and ways to fix the problem of gender inequality, among other inspiring insights, in three panels at the conference.

Gender Equality

The He for She and What Will Be panel began with a focus on the advocates of the gender equity space, notably the movement of male champions for female progress in the workplace. The talk was moderated by Sophie Guerin, APJ Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Dell.

James Quinnild, Partner and Financial Services Consulting Leader for Asia at PwC, relates to the topic with his earlier experience at the firm in the US when he helped women ascend the ranks, and a more challenging task of doing the same in Japan to create more opportunities for women.

“I have a number of them now working in London, New York and Hong Kong, and it got me thinking again about how we can do things differently in our process to get the outcome we want, which is a diverse group of leaders,” he reveals.

Quinnild says his firm is now very active as a sponsor for the HeForShe movement and for The Women’s Foundation with its mentoring initiative.

Ben Way, CEO of Macquarie Group Asia, recalls an early example of making a change at the firm, which drew questions like “Why don’t people just get on with it?” and “How can we accommodate female employees for breastfeeding upon returning from maternity leave?”. Breastfeeding rooms in the office was the answer in Asia to much success.

The experience is an indication that people are not inherently resistant to diversity and inclusiveness but have not gone through the thinking process, Way believes. And more could be done for a pool of about 300 employees.

“We have a lot of policies and initiatives, but diversity among our partners is still behind,” he says. “This is where I think the most difficult conversations have been.”

Lily Ng, Director of Typhoon Consulting, adds, “When a man steps up, gives [women] a platform and decides to stand for diversity and equality, he is breaking the mold. That’s why it is important that we collaborate and work together to achieve through this journey.”

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From left: James Quinnild, Lily Ng, Richard Nicoll, Ben Way and Sophie Guerin

On the execution of driving gender equity throughout an organization, Quinnild notes how different it is for women to take the next steps compared with men as they have different motivations and demands for support to get ahead. However, given a strong stance on meritocracy and equality, a one-size-fits-all solution might not be the right answer.

“We need to evolve from everything equal to what we need to do on a more tailor-made basis to get the outcome we want,” he explains.

In contrast, Richard Nicoll, Chief Shopping Marketing Officer at Saatchi & Saatchi, has had a different experience in an industry where women dominate, including top level positions. His recent initiatives include helping women in developing countries, such as female farmers in Indonesia for Java Mountain Coffee.

With Nicoll’s help, these women banded together to break the mold of the male-dominated coffee production in the country, aiming to sell their coffee to major supermarkets including Walmart. It was a journey of going through a large number of men in the chain to get the support.

“Many male champions for women have taken a bit of jump of faith to make that happen as this is often taken for granted,” he says.

Media & Diversity

The next panel on How Media Is Addressing Gender Diversity, moderated by Su-Mei Thompson, CEO of The Women’s Foundation, was about the media’s depiction of women and inequality, beginning with a trailer viewing of the film She Objects, a documentary directed by Nicola Fan on how media reinforces gender stereotypes.

From research for the film, Fan learnt that young girls are less happy nowadays and that social media has had an impact on how women spend time to portray their best selves on these networks. This habit reinforces women to seek validation from others, she notices, citing the trend of younger-age sex offenders in the city and the prevalence of the Internet.

“Younger kids are accessing adult content conveniently without parental awareness,” she says. “They turn to media, including social media, for answers that they are not getting from school or parents.”

Carlo Imò, President of Kering Asia Pacific, which has just signed a five-year partnership deal with Cannes Films Festival, sheds light on substantial gender issues in the film world, including the absence of females in top echelons of the industry.

Since the inception of the Oscars in 1929, there has been only four female nominees for Best Director, including Kathryn Bigelow who became the first woman to win the award in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. Female actors also tend to get more passive roles, he points out. “If you look at the most played roles by women, it is 89 percent as nurses, 82 percent as secretaries, 57 percent as teachers, 53 percent as waitresses and 47 percent as cashiers.”

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From left: Dr. Mario Liong, Nicola Fan, Carlo Imò, Shannon Van Sant and Su-Mei Thompson

To better present women in films, Kering, in collaboration with the Cannes Film Festival, hosts events such as Women in Motion series to stimulate discussion on these issues and more. As such, Salma Hayak has spoken about sexism in Hollywood and Frances McDormand on pay disparity within the industry.

Shannon Van Sant, a veteran TV newsperson and documentary filmmaker, speaking about the criticism female anchors sometimes face because of their appearances, recalls one experience of filming a documentary on the plight of North Korean refugees.

“I took it back to the executives at a network in New York, and the only thing they would talk about was the way I looked when filming the story on camera,” she says. Van Sant also notes the scarcity of TV shows or films on women, their upbringing and adventures as the main story, instead of their relationships.

Meanwhile, Dr Mario Liong, an assistant professor at Centennial College, highlights the worrying impact of the pseudo-model phenomenon in Hong Kong, which started in 2008. Companies have amateur models depicted in images that resemble Japanese pornography to target male teenagers for the purpose of marketing, he explains.

In interviews with college-age women about these images, Liong found they either despised these visuals or felt insecure about their bodies as a result. “The female sexy model phenomenon plays an important role in encouraging a sexualized culture, and it undermines women’s abilities,” he says.

The Workplace

At the final panel on The Future of Work, moderated by Stella Abraham of JLL, much wisdom arose from the speakers on cultivating a productive and healthy office environment to the different styles of workspace.

Michelle Lam, Founder of The Spoilt Experiences Group, which specializes on gift voucher experiences, discusses about her modern office of predominantly young staff, such as using cloud technology so employees can work from home or office.

In her company, in lieu of health insurance, staff are offered a “Spoil Yourself Allowance” and can spend it on traveling or use it to reimburse their medical expenses. It became an instant hit with Y-generation employees, a demographic that appreciates choices in the workplace, Lam explains.

Despite a more traditional office environment at DBS Bank Hong Kong, it is in the midst of a transition as its leadership is striving to create a high-purpose bank by “making banking joyful,” says David Lynch, Managing Director and Head of Technology & Operations. All 20,000 employees were pooled to discuss areas for improvement, including the adoption of technology.

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From left: Emma Reynolds, David Lynch, Michelle Lam and Stella Abraham

Driving change throughout the firm requires “tremendous persistence”, proper resources and a dedicated team to spark change which have helped immensely. “I’ve got an innovation team that can build applications and play with robotics and artificial intelligence,” Lynch says. “There’s a huge interest although you may not always succeed.” It installs a culture in the workplace of trying different things.

Emma Reynolds, Co-founder and CEO of e3Reloaded, says distrust is a leading problem in organizations. “There is nothing more demeaning and demotivating than not being trusted to act like a responsible adult. When a system is designed by a two-percent minority who might get something wrong, you are holding the other 98 percent hostage – employees who have the intention of getting it right.”

Reynolds urges companies to improve the employee experience, including the language and tone used. “What employees sometimes have to experience can be awful. We’d never accept that in the customer landscape,” she says, adding it impedes staff from achieving great work.

To bring change, people need to quantify the root of the problem with its impact on business performance, Reynolds suggests. “If you listen closely, it usually comes down to the issue of trust 99 percent of the time.”

He for She and What Will Be
Lily Ng – Director Typhoon Consulting
Richard Nicoll – Chief Shopper Marketing Officer Saatchi & Saatchi
James Quinnild – Partner, Financial Services Consulting Leader – Asia PwC
Ben Way – CEO Macquarie Group Asia
Moderator: Sophie Guerin – APJ Diversity & Inclusion Lead Dell

How Media Is Addressing Gender Diversity
Nicola Fan – Director She Objects
Carlo Imò – President Kering Asia Pacific
Dr. Mario Liong – Assistant Professor Centennial College
Shannon Van Sant – Editor
Moderator: Su-Mei Thompson – CEO The Women’s Foundation

The Future of Work
Michelle Lam – Founder The Spoilt Experiences Group
David Lynch – Managing Director and Head of Technology & Operations, HK & Mainland China DBS Bank (Hong Kong) Limited
Emma Reynolds – Co-Founder & CEO e3Reloaded
Moderator: Stella Abraham – Head, Residential Leasing & Relocation Services, HK JLL