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Opinion: Why women are leaving Hong Kong tech companies

BY ATHENA LAM

The silence expanded beyond the empty seat she left behind, which is right in the middle of the technology company’s open office in Hong Kong. Everyone who works at the office walks past it every day. The quietness clung on for several weeks, even after someone new occupied her desk. She was one of a handful of female colleagues who left the company in the span of a year. One moved on after a few months to work at a United Nations agency, while another left for a position at an education centre. At least two others left without immediate new work.

When they left, I missed the camaraderie we shared. But more importantly, I missed the other things they contributed  –  their perspectives, sense of humour, energy, and interest in people beyond their departments. Shortly after, I too decided to move on.

In Hong Kong, the tech industry is facing a diversity crisis. While there are no statistics on the percentage of women working in tech in the city, many of us in the industry agree that it suffers from an acute gender gap. Between 2010 and 2017, roughly 31.7 per cent of engineering and technology graduates were female, according to Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee. Women in engineering and technology courses also only make up 29.5 per cent in government-subsidized universities, the South China Morning Post reports.

The reasons for this disparity are structural and complex. However, one driving factor – not only in Hong Kong but globally – is that many women face negative experiences in existing companies and grapple with issues such as legitimacy, lack of fair pay, and a glass ceiling when it comes to promotion.

Shelly Lire, a local female engineer, certainly feels the pressure. “I feel my words are less convincing to people and my performance was somehow underrated…I feel I need to constantly prove myself working here,” she said. James Tang, a designer at an award-winning app company in Hong Kong, also anecdotally estimates that female engineers make up “not more than one out of ten” employees in tech. He adds that most female engineers he knows are in “more junior or internship roles.”

Why does the gender ratio matter in the company and across departments? Diversity extends beyond gender representation. Gender is a visible gateway topic for other considerations such as LGBTQI+, accessibility, ethnicity and cultural inclusion. If a company cannot attract women, it is unlikely to attract and retain diverse employees with talent, including men.

Some tech companies run on a flat structure where any colleague can contribute ideas and vote to pass motions. Yet according to Linda Keung, a software development project manager, this does not necessarily translate into better representation of minority perspectives. “I think it’s kind of unfair to people who are quiet because only the people willing to speak up will be noticed,” she said.

Lam marches at the 2017 Hong Kong Pride Parade. Credit: Athena Lam.

In recent years, companies have tried to adopt inclusive practices to cater to diverse teams. Some have introduced paternity leave, designated rooms for nursing mothers and encouraged male workers to reach out to their female colleagues for their perspectives. Lire says she felt particularly appreciated when a male sales team member asked for her opinion, as well as those of her other female colleagues, on a project for a client who wanted to make a part-time girlfriend app. The client was turned down when several female colleagues voted no for ethical reasons.

Yet despite these efforts, many have yet to implement measures to improve the retention rate of workers, particularly minority ones, and the industry-wide diversity brain drain continues. “They do virtually nothing to keep people. No-one in management asked me why I left and how the company can be improved,” said one local male software engineer, upon quitting his job.

According to Lire and Keung, while the industry meets the criteria for having “basic gender equality,” female colleagues are still subject to uncomfortable situations. For instance, Lire remembers hearing “jokes around somebody secretly being gay” and colleagues “making fun of #MeToo” during one point in her career. This happens despite the fact that companies officially advocate for gender and sexual equality by participating in events like pride marches.

One former male software engineer echoes her sentiment. He said that when companies allow employees to criticise one another on social platforms, it “throws a lot of trust out the window.”

Sometimes, progressive policies can also lead to unforeseen biases. Salaries are calculated using a system of base pay, which is multiplied according to factors such as seniority. While this transparent salary formula in theory equalises the gender pay gap, the decision-makers who determine these scorecard factors are mostly male. Bi-annual performance reviews are focused on delivery related directly to a person’s position, so new and nursing mothers – as well as fathers on paternity leave – are immediately at a disadvantage when it comes to asking for salary raises. By removing female perspectives from the discussion, the system becomes inherently biased.

In addition, female colleagues often hit glass ceilings. When Keung tried to ask for a raise, she was denied because she was perceived to have hit her peak. “Because I’m less technical, (the CEO) didn’t think I could have any more increments to my salary. (But) I don’t think it’s a fair amount,” she said.

In Hong Kong, the policies adopted by tech companies to promote diversity continue to evolve. Keung’s case highlights that while gender equity is important, promoting awareness and trust among minority colleagues is just as crucial. Do people feel comfortable and safe articulating their concerns? Can companies listen to their employees when problems arise and work towards a solution? Can companies begin to recognize the value of non-technical expertise and pay for it? In flat-structured companies where everyone, in theory, is able to make contributions – are people empowered to do so?

These are crucial questions to consider for companies who are evolving and looking to attract and retain talent. If companies can become better at fostering an environment where minority employees are able to hold debates, express their opinions, and proactively create a better workspace themselves and future colleagues – maybe we can begin to work towards true equity in tech.

About the author

Portrait of Lam. Credit: Athena Lam.
Athena Lam is a content marketing consultant who works with startups and software companies in East Asia, Europe and Canada. An advocate for LGBTQ and social inclusion issues, Athena has spoken at conferences organised by The Economist, Asia-Pacific Weeks Berlin, and Planet Ally, amongst others. Since 2015, Athena has been providing English resources on niche travel topics for Japan and Greater China on her personal blog The Cup and the Road, and an industry blog for company founders in Business 3.0. Athena also compiled a list of 100+ Women in Tech in Asia with two other women in Hong Kong’s tech industry, Ten Tang and May Yeung.

Follow her on social media:

Twitter: @cupandtheroad
Instagram: thecupandtheroad
About the editor

Jessie Lau is a writer, editor and researcher passionate about exploring gender, ethnicity, social policy and identity in China and other parts of Asia. Based in London and Hong Kong, she has written stories on everything from pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and solitary confinement in Californian prisons to China’s massive boarding school program targeting ethnic Uyghur and Tibetan children. Now freelancing as a video news assistant at The Associated Press, her writing has been published by the The EconomistQuartz, and South China Morning Post, among others. She is a board member at NüVoices, a collective supporting women working on China subjects, and Online Editor-in-Chief of NüStories, its feminist magazine amplifying minority voices.

Twitter @_laujessie  Website: www.laujessie.com