Laying foundations for women
As CEO of The Women’s Foundation and member of the Equal Opportunities Commission in Hong Kong, Su-Mei Thompson is passionate about equality. Despite the challenges, she’s optimistic about countering stereotypes, changing mindsets and improving the prospects of women and girls, as she told our K reporter.
Su-Mei Thompson grew up in Malaysia until she was 12, when her parents sent her to Cheltenham Ladies College, an all-girls boarding school in England. In turn, she earned a place at Cambridge, followed by Oxford and then IMD in Lausanne, where she was the first woman ever to make the Dean’s List.
Thompson’s career has been equally impressive. She worked at Linklaters in London as a corporate finance lawyer, and in senior management roles in Asia at The Walt Disney Company, the Financial Times and Christie’s. In 2008, she took some time off after the birth of her second daughter and a year later returned to professional life as CEO of The Women’s Foundation, a Hong Kong NGO dedicated to the advancement of women and girls.
How easy was it for you to build a career, as a woman?
Overall I’ve been pretty lucky to work for great organisations and great people. I did have a tricky female boss early on in my career who didn’t like me doing anything that raised my profile. She didn’t file a single performance review for the four years that I worked for her. When she left and the folks from head office arrived to identify her replacement, there was very little that they could go on in terms of promoting me or offering me other opportunities. I was so scarred by this that I’ve always gone out of my way to give credit where it’s due, to provide opportunities for colleagues and subordinates to shine, and to encourage the people I work with to support each other to be their best selves.
How about your experience as a woman in the corporate world?
My parents were very humble and I guess they were quite deferential in their thinking – perhaps this is unsurprising given that Malaysia was a British colony.
They always drilled into me that as an Asian, and as a girl, I was at a disadvantage to the other students so I would need to work harder just to keep up.
My dad told me when I called them from Oxford to tell them the news [she had graduated with a First Class degree] that my mum had been on her hands and knees praying for me just to pass my exams.
In the corporate world, in my experience, different standards apply to men and women leaders – assertive successful women often attract pejorative comments about having ‘sharp elbows’ or not being team players.
To be liked, women leaders have to almost exaggerate or over-project their ’feminine’ qualities
to show that they are warm and nurturing, as well as being effective in their jobs.
What is the situation for women in Hong Kong today?
It’s hard to believe that in this shiny metropolis, one in five people is living on the poverty line and among them, women are particularly vulnerable. Women comprise over 80 per cent of the workforce, earning less than HK$5,000 per month [less than $700 USD]. Women over 60 are more likely to be living in poverty than any other age group; 25 per cent are registered as having a disability; 15 per cent live alone; and only 8 per cent are employed.
Harassment of women is also on the rise with offenders getting younger. Domestic violence cases increased 20 per cent over the last five years, even in the face of massive under-reporting. Many teenage girls are growing up with body image issues which can quickly spiral into self-harm.
In government, politics, and especially business, the corridors of power are dominated by men.
And the gender gap is even wider in the boardroom.
What concrete changes have you been able to make so far through The Women’s Foundation?
Since 2009, we’ve launched a number of new research studies, programmes and initiatives spanning life skills and gender awareness training for at-risk and under-privileged teens; financial capability and employability training for marginalised communities of women; a comprehensive strategy to stimulate demand for, and to promote the supply of, women in executive and non-executive roles; a range of programmes to address the under-representation of women in technology; a new documentary project that will highlight the role of media in creating and perpetuating gender stereotypes; and capability training for women entrepreneurs.
Could you give an example of one life you’ve changed?
One of the grassroots participants in our Financial Literacy and Employability Programme, Sukey, started the programme with very little self-confidence. She was struggling to make ends meet after her husband tragically died, leaving her with two young children. Through our programme, we introduced Sukey to Yvette, a boutique jewellery entrepreneur from South Africa. Yvette asked Sukey and some of her friends to help produce some of her simpler jewellery pieces. Sukey quickly moved from not only replicating jewellery designs to making her own designs and she has been able to set aside money for her children's future.
Do you ever worry about the opportunities for your daughters?
Yes, I worry about my daughters but not because they will lack opportunities – it’s more that they have too many! Already at seven and nine, it’s hard to juggle all their different hobbies and to know how best as a mother to help them develop their interests.
When they get a bit older, the two things I’m going to be telling them are: first, life is long but it is also short, so it is important to do something you enjoy with people you like.
Secondly, not to build a life in the context of a career but rather, they should build a career in the context of a life.
It is vitally important to have outside interests and people in your life who are outside of work. They will help you maintain perspective and provide you with support, and will be an important consolation when things aren’t going well at work. That happens even to the best us.
How do you juggle a full-time job and motherhood?
I’m very lucky I don’t need a lot of sleep. I try and get home by 5pm every day so I can see the girls, help them with homework and have dinner with them. And then I’ll start working again from about 9pm usually until around 1am or 2am. I find I’m often at my most productive around midnight!
Closing the gender gap seems like an endless battle. Are you optimistic?
Yes, for a couple of reasons. One is this used to be a discussion that women had with other women. Now we have many more men engaged in the dialogue. Second is the wealth of research that is emerging that demonstrates that diversity is driving better business performance, more effective governance and enhanced customer engagement. Thirdly, demographic factors which make it imperative for countries to retain women in the workforce, because of the double whammy of a rapidly ageing population and a low birth rate.
We need women to stay in the workforce to plug the gap!