WOMEN OF INFLUENCE: Non-Profit Leader of the Year

Su-Mei Thompson, CEO, The Women’s Foundation

By Blessing Waung


If there’s one person in Hong Kong whose name is synonymous with advocating on behalf of women in the workplace, that person would be Su-Mei Thompson. CEO of The Women’s Foundation for the past six years, Thompson works tirelessly to empower working women, as well as the men they work with, in order to even the gap and help women achieve their full potential.

Before working at The Women’s Foundation, Thompson worked in the private sector for nearly two decades, initially as a corporate finance lawyer in London, and later moving to plum roles at The Walt Disney Company, the Financial Times, and Christie’s in Hong Kong. In 2008, while serving as the co-head of Asia for Christie’s auction house and after having her second daughter, Thompson decided to take a year off from work in order to spend time with her family.

“It was during this year-long sabbatical that I realized how hard it is for women who give up work or return to the workplace, and how much confidence, courage and determination it takes for them to overcome the perceptions and biases that employers have about part-time staff and a lack of commitment,” Thompson says.

With this realization, Thompson relished the opportunity to work with The Women’s Foundation, citing the quality of its research, coupled with the organization’s high-caliber content, something ingrained in her having worked with the FT. She also sought the chance to design and implement impact programs, which she cited as a task that “basically marries global best practices and innovative ideas with local knowledge and the local context.”

“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. At the same time, women are all too often branded as ‘over emotional’ or accused of having favorites,” she says.

“As a woman leader, you need to get used to the fact these kinds of conversations about you are taking place and to not to let it bother you,” Thompson asserts.

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“As a male manager, you need to realize that the environment you think of as a meritocracy may not be quite so equitable, and you should encourage feedback from your teams about your management style and whether this is inadvertently preventing or discouraging female colleagues and subordinates from speaking up or advancing their careers.”

Encouragingly, she says that she has seen a recent trend where men are increasingly engaged in the dialogue for gender equality, citing the example of the 30% Club in Hong Kong, which advocates gender diversity on executive boards. Additionally, she believes that framing parental leave as a gender-neutral issue encourages the recognition of men wanting to be more involved with their family. Both maternity and paternity leave can be cast in a more positive light for all company employees.

The project Thompson and The Women’s Foundation are currently working on is titled She Objects, a documentary that explores the portrayal of women in the Hong Kong media, and its correlation to sexual harassment cases, rising eating disorders, and lack of ambition to aspire to leadership roles.

“All too often, news reports unduly scrutinize women leaders for their appearance instead of judging the substance of their actions. And we’ve all read pieces which implicitly shift the blame to female victims of harassment by commenting on what they were wearing or whether they were drinking instead of focusing on the really important question of why in the 21st century men and boys continue to perpetrate violence against women.”

“We need to mobilize widespread support for a greater willingness to scrutinize and call out egregious programming, advertising and news reports,” she says.

Altogether, Thompson sees bright spots in Asia, with Mainland China having one of the highest percentages of senior female managers worldwide, at 38 percent. Additionally, she believes that the rise of female political leaders in South Korea, Myanmar and Taiwan is encouraging.

There is still some way to go, though, with traditional mindsets in the home and rigid organizational structures in the workplace serving as the largest barriers.

Already, according to Thompson, numerous studies demonstrate that gender diversity creates better business, more effective governance and enhanced customer engagement. With organizations such as The Women’s Foundation paving the way, Hong Kong will continue to make this a priority on everyone’s agenda.

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