Speech by CS at the International Women's Summit (English only) (with photos/video)

     Following is the speech delivered by the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mrs Carrie Lam, at the opening ceremony of "International Women's Summit: Realizing Women's Dreams" organised by the All-China Women's Federation Hong Kong Delegates Association this morning (March 29):

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

     It is my great pleasure to join you all for this inaugural International Women Summit organised by the All-China Women's Federation Hong Kong Delegates Association. I am delighted that we have so many people attending this event. I was told the total number of attendances exceeds 1 400.

     Earlier this month, on March 8, the world marked International Women's Day. Events were held around the world, including here in Hong Kong, to celebrate the occasion. I also hosted a reception at the Central Government Offices in my capacity as the Chief Secretary for Administration for a second year. The history of International Women's Day dates back more than 100 years and, although a lot has changed for women since then, much more needs to be done on a global basis, to break down gender barriers and promote opportunities for all women - regardless of education level, race or religion - and help them fulfil their life dreams.

     Here in Hong Kong, it was less than 100 years ago, in 1921 that the first female students entered university. Their numbers have been growing ever since. According to latest figures from 2012, more than half - 53.3 per cent to be exact - of students in universities across Hong Kong are female. This compares favourably with other advanced economies in Asia such as Singapore (the corresponding figure was 49.9 per cent), Japan (43 per cent) and South Korea (39.1 per cent).

     There have been many more moments in the past half century to mark the remarkable achievements of women in Hong Kong. In 1966, Hong Kong's first female Justice of the Peace, Mrs Ellen Li, became the first female member of the Legislative Council. Today, around 17 per cent of Hong Kong legislators are women. In 1993, Mrs Anson Chan became the first female Chief Secretary, the head of the civil service back then, while in 1997, Hong Kong named its first female LegCo President (Mrs Rita Fan) and first female Secretary for Justice (Ms Elsie Leung). Both Mrs Fan and Ms Leung are in the audience. May I invite you to join me to give them a big applause.

     We are fortunate to have many accomplished women here today, including Dr Margaret Chan, who will be giving a pre-recorded message later on. Dr Chan became Hong Kong's first female Director of Health in 1994 and Hong Kong's first ever head of a United Nations agency when, in 2006, she took up her current position as Director-General of the World Health Organization. On a more personal note, Dr Chan was my wonderful mentor when we both worked in the Department of Health in the early nineties.

     I have mentioned just some of Hong Kong's most prominent women in their chosen fields, but I believe it is important to fight for the right of all women, not just a fortunate few, to fulfil their dreams.

     While preparing for this event today, I was interested to note that the first full-time woman bus drivers in Hong Kong got behind the wheel of a Kowloon Motor Bus bus in 1989. Some said they took up the challenge of driving a bus because they thought it would be interesting and fun. According to their website, the company today employs about 460 female bus captains. I am pleased to tell you that they have also done much to dismantle the boorish stereotype of women drivers!

     No doubt, much more needs to be done to change perceptions of women in the workplace and empower women to achieve their life goals.

     Governments have an important role to play in key areas of policy-making, public engagement and international collaboration. And let me take this opportunity to share with you the Hong Kong experience.

     The current-term HKSAR Government has specifically highlighted the development of women as an action area, including in our Chief Executive's annual Policy Address.

     The Government works closely with the Women's Commission, which was established in 2001 to advise the Government on policies that impact on women's issues and to promote gender mainstreaming in policy-making. The current Chairperson of the Women's Commission, Mrs Stella Lau, is also in the audience.

     Recent Government-led initiatives include the Commission's launch in 2012 of a Funding Scheme for Women's Development. The Scheme provides funds for women's groups and non-governmental organisations that provide services and organise events and activities to promote women's interests. Each year, the Funding Scheme has a theme and this year's theme is "Women's Employment".

     Another recent initiative has been to turn the Capacity Building Mileage Programme into a recurrent project with an annual budget of HK$8 million. The CBMP, in short, was launched by the Women's Commission in 2004 and is now jointly run by the Open University of Hong Kong and a private radio station (Metro Broadcast Corporation Limited). About 70 women's groups and non-governmental organisations across Hong Kong provide support for the Programme, which is designed to encourage lifelong learning and enhance self-confidence among women. These courses are flexible, affordable and easily accessed through radio broadcasts, the Internet and face-to-face instruction. This innovative initiative was first drawn to my attention in 2003 when I was the Director of Social Welfare. Despite my initial reservation about the proposal's effectiveness, I lent support to its application for a grant from the Lotteries Fund. I am really very pleased to see the Programme has flourished over the past decade, with more than 63 700 people enrolled in its courses. I had the opportunity of talking to some graduates from this programme during the International Women's Day reception earlier this month and was thrilled to share their satisfaction.

     Despite the high level of education attained by women in Hong Kong, their participation rate in the labour force has risen only slightly over the past decade, from 48.9 per cent in 2002 to 49.6 per cent in 2012. Compared to Singapore, which shares many of our similarities in terms of women's education, size of the family and availability of foreign domestic helpers, Hong Kong is 8 per cent behind.

     A closer look at the demographics reveals a sharp decline of working women aged between 30 and 39, when many get married and start a family. Let me first say that homemaking and raising a family is itself a full-time commitment and one that deserves the fullest respect and admiration of the community. But devotion to work and family is not a zero-sum game. Indeed, there are benefits to be gained from striking a healthy balance between work and home life, such as a sense of accomplishment, increased family income and gender equality in the family.

     According to our Census and Statistics Department, about 8 per cent of women homemakers are keen to work if the right opportunities arise.

     The life of a working mother is not an easy path to follow, as I am sure many of you here today will agree. But it is not an impossible dream and governments, including the HKSAR Government, must do more to enable women to pursue a career while raising a family, if they choose to do so.

     The Women's Commission together with the Labour and Welfare Bureau of the HKSAR Government are conducting a survey to find out why women in Hong Kong leave their jobs and how we can encourage them to return to work. Women are an important part of Hong Kong's labour force and economic mix. Their involvement will become increasingly important as Hong Kong copes with the challenge of an ageing population and a shrinking workforce, which is forecast to occur in 2018.

     The Steering Committee on Population Policy, which I chair, recently concluded a public engagement exercise which included the topic of women in the labour force.

     Allow me to briefly share with you some of the findings of this public consultation. They include:

* Strong support for female homemakers to find a job or re-join the workforce.

* Key considerations for working mothers are the quality, affordability and accessibility of childcare services and afterschool care services.

* Some suggestions for more part-time jobs, job-sharing or home office opportunities for homemakers.

* Also, some concerns were expressed about the potential negative impact on parenting and the solidarity of families if more homemakers join the workforce.

     The Steering Committee will make specific recommendations based on the findings of the public consultation. A full report on the views and analysis of the findings is expected to be published in the second quarter of this year.

     Meanwhile, in this year's Policy Address delivered in January, the Chief Executive, Mr C Y Leung, already set aside more resources to improve after-school care services to support working parents. This includes extending the service hours in some after-school care centres and providing additional fee-waiving and fee reduction quotas, raising the age limit of service beneficiaries under the Neighbourhood Support Child Care Project and providing additional places for the home-based child care service under the Project. Schools are also encouraged through regular funding provided by the Education Bureau and project funding by the Community Care Fund to enhance after-school learning and support services so that more working parents can have their mind at ease.

     The work of the Government alone cannot help women fulfil their dreams. We need strong collaboration among all sectors of the community. By setting aside HK$200 million under the Partnership Fund for the Disadvantaged to provide matching grants for collaboration amongst schools, non-governmental organisations and the business sector to run school-based support programmes, we hope to provide more help to students from disadvantaged families.

     In Hong Kong, the Women's Commission plays a leading role in promoting strong communication amongst the Government, various women's groups and relevant NGOs. By maintaining contact with more than 300 women's groups and NGOs, the Commission provides valuable perspectives on policy-making from the viewpoint of women.

     Working together, this network of women's interest groups covers all the angles affecting women including professionals and entrepreneurs, ethnic minority groups and expatriates, vulnerable women and so on.

     As an international city, Hong Kong is committed to promoting the development of women in line with international benchmarks and principles.

     The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW in short) was extended to Hong Kong in 1996. Since then, the Government has paid close attention to the principles of CEDAW and its recommendations. Amongst other things, Hong Kong submits regular reports to the CEDAW Committee as part of the periodic reports provided by the Central People's Government.

     We take our responsibilities of international engagement on women's issues very seriously.

     The Government has launched several campaigns to promote awareness of CEDAW and its work in eliminating discrimination against women. We have held roving exhibitions, commissioned educational dramas and organised educational activities to highlight the importance of CEDAW and Hong Kong's commitment to stamp out gender discrimination.

     Over the years, we have acted on various recommendations made by the CEDAW Committee. Indeed, the Women's Commission was established in 2001 in response to the Committee's recommendations.

     We have also responded to the Committee's call to increase the representation of women in the civil service and the Judiciary as well as on Government advisory boards and statutory bodies.

     The Government initially set a target of 25 per cent female representation on our advisory and statutory bodies, which was achieved in December 2005. In June 2010, this target was raised to 30 per cent, which is in line with international norms. Again, I am pleased to say that we have reached and exceeded this target. As at end-2013, 32.4 per cent of appointees on these advisory and statutory bodies were women.

     Another area highlighted by the Committee is the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. This is a topic of specific interest for the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). The EOC responds to complaints and organises public education programmes to promote the equal pay principle.

     In terms of salary, a 2011 study found that women in Hong Kong were paid a monthly salary of 84.6 per cent of what their male counterparts earn. Comparable figures from the United States in 2012 showed a 76.5 per cent gender pay gap in the United States.

     In Asia, Hong Kong also compares favourably with other advanced economies including Singapore (81.7 per cent), Korea (67.7 per cent) and Japan (51.2 per cent).

     Rising education levels among female students over the years have helped boost the earning power of women at work and narrowed the difference in earnings between men and women. However, the gender pay gap also highlights the need for more efforts to be made in promoting equal pay for work of equal value.

     The HKSAR Government will continue to set a good example, not just through the implementation of equal pay in 1975, but also by promoting a healthy work-life balance for all civil servants and supporting the interests of women at work. More and more women are joining the civil service and I am confident that there are bright prospects ahead for them.

     Currently about one-third of our directorate-grade, that is, senior officers are women, while half of the Government's 18 permanent secretaries (which is the highest rank in the civil service) are women.

     Similarly, in the private sector, more opportunities are opening up for women to fulfil their dreams and potential.

     Currently, about one-in-three managers and administrators in the private sector in Hong Kong are women, up from about one-in-four (26 per cent) in 2002.

     In Hong Kong, boards of directors comprise almost 10 per cent of women (9.6 per cent) which again compares favourably with Singapore (7.9 per cent), Japan (2 per cent) and Korea (1 per cent).

     Nevertheless, I suggest that a report card on Hong Kong's overall performance in supporting female employees might award good marks for effort and progress, while also noting that there is still room for improvement.

     Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you with my Chief Secretary's cap firmly in place. I am the only female Principal Official in the current term HKSAR Government, a fact (or a not too satisfactory phenomenon) that has been pointed out to me on several occasions. However, I am sure I will not be the last female Principal Official to serve Hong Kong.

     Similar to many of you, I am also a mother, a wife and a daughter. I take all of my responsibilities very seriously and I am keenly aware of the challenges and opportunities for women in the workplace. I also know that I could not have pursued my own dream without the full support of the people around me at home and at work.

     Wherever you look in Hong Kong, in our companies, government departments, hospitals, schools, theatres, sports arenas and on the buses, you will see women making a full contribution to our community and our economy.

     Women have more opportunities for a fulfilling career than at any time before. Boys and girls compete as equals at school and as university students. In an increasingly competitive business world, good employers seek out the best person for the job, regardless of gender or background.

     The important thing for governments is to empower women with the support they need to pursue their dreams of a career without having to make impossible sacrifices at home.

     The HKSAR Government will continue to engage the local and international community so that we can work together to provide opportunities for women to fulfil their dreams.

     Finally, I would like to wish you all a successful International Women Summit and our visitors a very enjoyable stay with us in Hong Kong.

     Thank you very much.

Ends/Saturday, March 29, 2014
Issued at HKT 16:43