Women in Business – Can we have it all?

This morning, I awoke early at 6:30 am to be at the American Chamber’s Women in Business awards at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong.

The half-day conference started off with a bang with Ms. Angelina Kwan, MD of a regulator/compliance advisory company, jokingly quipped that if Lehman Brothers were led by more women (e.g., if it would have been called Lehman Sisters), the financial meltdown of 2008 wouldn’t had happened. Just a brief rundown on the agenda:

Opening Keynote:
Angelina Kwan, Managing Director, Stratford Upon Avon Finance Limited 

Luncheon Keynote:
The Hon. Miriam Lau, GBS, JP, Consultant & Notary Public; Legislator, King & Wood 

Panel Discussion: How Far Have We Come?
Deborah Kan, Presenter, Reuters Insider
Evelyn Ng, Honorary Research Fellow, and Co-Convener of the Women’s Studies Research, Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong
Su-Mei Thompson, Executive Director, The Women’s Foundation 

Concurrent Breakout Sessions:

A) The Three Stages of a Woman’s Career
Natasha Chen, General Manager, Colgate-Palmolive (HK) Ltd.
Sheila Chuang, SVP, ExxonMobil China Petroleum & Petrochemical Co. Ltd.
Rachel Wong, Assistant Vice President, Global Banking Group, Citi 

B) Tailoring Yourself for Success
Shirley Chang, Managing Director, McDonald’s Restaurants (HK) Ltd.
MaryAnn Vale, Head of Human Resources AP, RS Components Ltd.
Jia-Lu Yin, Executive Director, Private Wealth Management Asia, Morgan Stanley 

C) Men’s Changing Roles
Ali Beba, PhD, Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Management & Consultant, MBA Programs, The HK University of Science and Technology
Brett Rierson, Senior Partnerships Officer- Asia, United Nations World Food Programme
Matthew Taylor, House Husband

The conference was very well ran and insightful, though at times, it posed more questions than answers. However, to its credit, the American Chamber of Commerce had ran a balanced conference with career women discussing the realities of women in business, the frustration of trying to have it all, and I guess, what we can do about it going forward.

There is a consensus however: Women nowadays enjoy more benefits than women of yesteryears. Two more senior executives relate that at the beginning of their careers, women either started off as nurses, teachers or secretaries, with scenes in workplace more aptly depicted by the popular HBO show, Mad Men. Life has progressed a lot more in the last few years with women starting to break the glass ceilings in many organizations (though more of course can still be done).

The challenge then is for more women to take charge, raise their hands, and actually having the courage of asking for what they want/need. Typically, this has not been the case. Compared to men, women are more risk averse to asking for more during salary negotiations (with the tendency then of merely accepting what is offered). In many organizations, despite their competencies, women are content in letting the men run the show. This has caused the salary discrepancy offered quoted by others. Given the same roles and credentials, men are typically paid more than their female counterparts. But whose fault is that?

I agree with the opening speaker that organizations have the responsibility of making work more conducive to women. A speaker spoke about part-time work with a link to performance instead of hours worked for example. Another person asked for more flexible hours in a company.

To be fair however, companies are businesses. They need to make profit. And they can also be emotional creatures — Given the choice of hiring a man who is willing to fly for business every weekend and work 20 hours a day, or a woman who demands 4-months maternity leaves, flexible hours and have to balance the demands of both work and family, who would they hire? Even if you say that you can get the work done because of women’s more innate ability to multi-task, a woman’s temporary absence in the workplace due to a pregnancy, a family emergency, or to be there for the kids would still have some effect in the company’s performance especially if her work is critical.

So yes, companies can be understanding and try to make work conducive — but let’s be fair. Only to a certain point. After that, women have to make a choice really. It’s about prioritization.

Do you find work more important, or family more important? “It’s a personal choice, really,” a few speakers did mention. In my own words, despite being super-mommy, something really has to give.

I do admire these women however. They’ve managed to reach the highest positions in their organizations through blood, sweat and a lot of support from very good husbands who were very understanding as they moved through countries, worked till late, and were relatively more absent in their kids’ lives compared to stay-at-home mothers (of course). The path however, took a lot of sacrifice and compromises in the family.

I think it’s okay to move, but you really need to get your husband involved,” one speaker mentioned. I agree. You really need to have buy in from your husband. “It’s not really your life you’re talking about. It’s not his life. It’s the family’s life you’re affecting.”

And I guess, it’s really about give and take. It takes a lot of time, effort and consideration, but even though the situation would never be perfect, families do work it out somewhat.

My more traditional Trader disagrees however. He believes us to be feminist. “Kids need their mom” he mentioned. “What about the families?” Btw, I am aware that we do have disagreements in this topic. But that is for another blogpost.

Personally, I’m a lot more selfish than other women and unbashedly so (which is probably why his parents are not as keen about me). I think that degrees are not just to make ourselves good mothers who can raise good kids. After studying hard for my undergrad and MBA, I do want to have a good return in my investment. In addition, I think it’s this intellectual curiosity and this hunger for life are two things that make a woman interesting.

Yes, be a stay-at-home woman if this is what you love, and be the best mother there is to your kids. However, if your desire is to make a name for yourself, achieve outside the home and somewhat raise decent kids, you will hate yourself if you quit your job just because your in-laws say so. In turn, you’ll be bitter and angry, blaming your kids, your husband and everyone else for your not reaching your full potential.

The conference showed us the realities of being a woman as well. It’s not easy, but success is attainable. It does come with a price, but hopefully, a relatively more affordable one (e.g., relatively sane kids = affordable. A druggie and criminal son = NOT affordable).

Post my MBA, my path is semi-clear. I do know where to go, and I do know that though kids may be in the mid-term horizon (God, help me….), I don’t think I can leave the workforce entirely and just be a tai tai. That would just be asking for too much.

And here we bring back the qualities of what makes women a success: being able to have the confidence and assertiveness to be a woman. Don’t accept things because you are guilty about it. In a way, things would be more or less alright.

So I guess when the time comes that Trader and I make that talk, it’s as if I am talking to my boss and asking for a raise. It’s really about negotiating for what’s important for you, and what you can compromise. And in a way, if you both leave each other, I do believe that things will be all right. Not perfect, but still acceptable.

And I think that’s my goal. Maybe women CAN have it all. 🙂

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