New Reports on Women’s Status Reveal Changing Faces of Hong Kong

Independent policy think tank Civic Exchange today launched a series of three reports tracking the changing faces of Hong Kong, with specific emphasis on the changing status of women, over the past two decades. The three reports are:

1. The Changing Faces of Hong Kong: A Cohort Analysis of Women, 1991-2011. Authored by Louisa Mitchell, this 250-page report is a substantial analysis of census data published by the HKSAR Government, academic studies, and grey literature. Mitchell constructs profiles of “typical” Hong Kong women in different age ranges comparing their situation today with twenty years ago across topics such as education, earnings, employment, occupation and marital status.

2. The Changing Faces of Hong Kong: Women in the Community and National Context, 1994-2010. Authored by Professor Michael DeGolyer of the Hong Kong Transition Project (HKTP), this 131-page report mines the public opinion survey data that HKTP has collected since 1994 to reveal the changing attitudes and behaviours of Hong Kong people in areas such as feelings towards national day, issues of concern, and political and civic participation.

3. The Changing Faces of Hong Kong: A Graphical Summary of Women’s Status, 1991-2011. Compiled by Carine Lai of Civic Exchange, this is a visual summary that captures the key messages from the above two substantial reports.

Commissioned by The Women’s Foundation and supported with a grant from Goldman Sachs, this research attempts to track the changing status of women over the past 20 years by looking into historical data. It aims to offer deeper understanding of the changing faces of Hong Kong society, and thereby assist policy makers in formulating policies better geared towards meeting the needs of Hong Kong people, some of which may involve gender-specific policies and/or measures.

The aim of Report 1 was to provide a broad overview of the social and economic conditions confronting women in Hong Kong today and over the last two decades to provide deep background to Report 2 and future gender-related work. The analysis was conducted systematically by different age cohorts so as to enable a fresh look at how, for example, the life of a typical woman in her 20s or her 60s differs today from 20 years ago. Clear trends emerged in all of the topics under analysis. For instance, in the analysis on family and household structures, it was clear that today’s older women grew up in larger households than younger women, that greater proportions of younger women are remaining unmarried, that family structures are becoming more diverse, that more older people are living alone and that younger people living with their parents for longer.

Whilst many of these trends were not surprising, their clarity was stark and provided new perspectives. However, some trends were less expected and stood out as areas in need of further understanding and possible policy intervention.

Elderly crime:
One such trend is that elder crime has been on the rise. Women ≥60 recorded the biggest increase in arrests of any age group, with a 6-fold increase from 204 to 1,286 arrests between 1991 and 2011. A 3-fold increase was also recorded for men arrested in this age group during the same time period. “The increase in crime amongst the elderly, its nature and whether it is linked to rising poverty in this age group needs further investigation,” said Mitchell, “Today’s elderly require immediate attention and government spending to improve their lives. At the same time, we need to begin research into the upcoming generation of elderly people, who are better educated and more economically independent.”

Improved education & career achievements but delayed childbirth for women in their 30s:
Women in their 30s have made major strides in catching up with men in educational attainment and wages, compared to their elders. They are now earning almost as much as men. However, equality of earnings only holds true when domestic helpers are excluded, which illustrates the low value placed on domestic work in Hong Kong and the extent to which middle class Hong Kong women depend on low-paid domestic labour to support their careers. Fertility rates for women in their 20s have continuously fallen between 1991 and 2011, whereas they have risen for women in their 30s and early 40s. Mitchell further explained: “In 2011, the median age of first childbirth hit 30 for the first time. This group of women in Hong Kong faces numerous and complex challenges often including heavy family responsibilities, high career expectations, a lack family-friendly employment practices and limited choices of childcare. In 2011, 25% women in their 30s still left the workforce after marriage.”

Youth poverty:
The analysis on employment and earnings showed that the wages of men and women in their 20s are the most equal of any age group. However, if median monthly earnings are adjusted for inflation, their earnings have barely risen since 1991, and have actually declined in real terms over the last 10 years. Rising educational qualifications have failed to translate into higher pay. In fact, wage growth for 20-somethings was the worst for any age group except for teenagers. Report number 2 by Professor DeGolyer additionally finds that lesser-educated younger men in particular, finding themselves out-competed by women for service jobs, have been engaged in increasing levels of political activism and protest.

Another key finding from Professor DeGolyer’s report was that –

Functional Constituencies under-represent women:
Although women have been gaining ground in acquiring advanced educations, they have not been following men into professional and managerial positions. Instead, a disproportionate number of women are becoming educators (4.8% of women vs. 2.3% of men in 2006-2010), or working in public sector or the privatised public services (21.3% of women vs. 16.7 of men in 2006-2010). “As female Functional Constituency voters are concentrated in just a few sectors, namely education, social welfare and health services, women’s influence is not broadly felt in the Legislative Council,” DeGolyer asserted, “This may lead to unconscious biases in Hong Kong’s decision-making structure.” Poll data shows that women are more concerned about social (including environmental) issues than men, compared to economic or political issues, but systematic biases in the corridors of power may lead to women’s concerns being deemphasised.

“Women have come a long way in the last 20 years, but the remaining hurdles aren’t as simple to deal with because they are rooted in social assumptions that people don’t necessarily see. Leaders need to be more aware of how gender affects people’s lives and how it’s relevant for public policy.” said Carine Lai, a project manager at Civic Exchange.

The current project has highlighted various areas of priority for policy makers to address. One of which is related to the availability and use of official data. “We faced a challenge when conducting this research, especially the part which we had to rely on official data. Some of the data are not freely available to researchers, which makes it impossible to conduct detailed statistical analysis,” argued Ms Yan-yan Yip. “Only a fuller and more sophisticated understanding of demographic trends can benefit Hong Kong’s public discourse and help policy makers to design evidence-based policies.” Yip added.