WOMEN OF INFLUENCE: To a Better and Brighter Future

By Leon Lee


For the twelfth year, AmCham was proud to hold the annual Women of Influence Conference & Awards – a day of honoring and celebrating the achievements of women professionals and gender diversity.

The event, attended by both male and female business leaders and professionals, offers thoughtful insights and healthy discussions on closing the gap of gender diversity in the workplace. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Evolution or Revolution: how will you succeed and excel at work in 2030?’

In his opening keynote address, Ronald Lee, who was awarded the Champion for the Advancement of Women at last year’s WOI Awards, wondered what can be achieved in 15 years’ time. Hong Kong certainly has enormous potential for achievement given its advantageous location at the doorsteps of China.

“Can we have all of the listed companies in Hong Kong with boards comprised of 30 percent women by 2030? After all, studies showed that Fortune 500 companies which have the highest representation of women on their boards significantly outperform those with the lowest representation. Specifically, return on equity for companies with the highest percentages of women work representation exceed those with the lowest by 53 percent,” Lee says.

“By 2030, can we work in a society with no doubt that men and women have equal opportunities to work? Right now, white women represent half of the world’s population, they only represent 37 percent of the world’s GDP.”

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Ronald Lee

However, the managing director at Goldman Sachs (Asia) stops short of making a prediction. Instead he offers three suggestions on what we can do today to get to where we want to be by 2030: to know, to teach, to believe.

Know thyself

For the first part, Lee questions how well we know ourselves and our hidden biases.

According to research by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, 75 percent of men who took their gender stereotype test associate the word ‘male’ with the word ‘work’ and the word ‘female’ with the word ‘family.’ Despite such stereotype, the ranks of women in the US non-farm payroll have exceeded those of men, 64.2 million women to 63.4 million men, since 2010.

The senior executive embarrassingly admits that he was among the 75 percent who had an automatic stereotype that men work while women stay at home, when he took the test online. But it seemed women had hidden biases as well.

“Apparently their study showed that 80 percent of women showed the same automatic stereotype associating the word ‘male’ with work and the word ‘female’ with family,” he points out.

To illustrate how these hidden biases exist in the workplace, Lee shares a recent account of a meeting at Goldman Sachs where the Chairman for Asia Pacific, Mark Schwartz, met with business managers who are expected to describe their pipeline of women candidates for promotion.

“As the manager was working his way through the list, he described one of his best, ‘she’s smart, hardworking but a little aggressive,’” he recalls. “Before he could go on, Mark sharply cut him off and said could you please repeat what you just said. And the manager, taken aback, obliged by tensely saying, ‘she’s smart, hardworking but a little aggressive.’”

“Mark cut him off angrily and said, ‘You run one of the toughest business units in the firm, and how can you describe her that way. You know if she weren’t a woman, you would describe her as smart, hardworking and aggressive. From now on, we’re not going to have a double standard where being aggressive is positive for a man and negative for a woman.’ The manager sheepishly agreed and indicated that he understood.”

Lee found the story to be both inspiring and haunting. Schwartz astutely and publicly pointed out an unconscious bias but Lee admitted that he could have easily seen himself making that same judgement and saying those words.

Teaching others

However, knowing your hidden bias is not enough, having knowledge is equally important.

When he was asked to be co-chair of Goldman Sachs’ diversity efforts in Asia, Lee thought himself to be an unlikely candidate having grown up in an all-boys school and working in the male-dominated investment banking industry.

“Before getting involved with the firm’s diversity efforts, I would have thought that gender equality was primarily something that women should drive,” Lee explains.

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“I was not familiar with the concept of He for She and the notion that men may have as important of a role to play in gender equality as women. I might not have known what He for She was because I grew up in an all-boys school system or because I worked in testosterone-driven investment banking industry. But mainly I think I didn’t know because I was uneducated on the subject.”

Therefore, in order to help companies and society make advancements in gender diversity in the next 15 years, he believes they must have the mindset of a teacher in order to create interest and curiosity in the subject.

“How do we get inside the minds of those who we want to learn? How do we keep the curiosity among those who are ignorant, skeptical or even hostile to the reality of where things need to be by 2030?” Lee asks.

Turning belief into reality

To demonstrate the power of believing, Lee used the story of runner Roger Bannister who was the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. Before he ran it in three minutes and 59.4 seconds in 1954, experts and scientists said that humans were unable to do so.

However, two months after Bannister’s achievement, another runner John Landy also ran a mile in under four minutes. Within a year of Bannister’s achievement, 24 other runners had achieved the mark. Today, it’s not uncommon for runners to do it.

“So what is it that made it possible for Roger Bannister to achieve something that people thought was impossible? Belief. He was not constrained by what scientists and doctors said, by the past, or by pain or difficulty. He believed he could do it,” Lee explains.

He mentions that South Korean President Park Geun-hye, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg believed too – a belief which has led them to become the leaders they are today.

“Whether it’s evolution or revolution, to achieve our goal by 2030 we have to believe. We have to believe in the extraordinary, even the impossible,” Lee says.

First-hand experience

New media entrepreneur Deborah Kan also expressed in her luncheon keynote the importance of believing.

At the beginning of her journalism career, she had an interview for her first on-air reporting job. She was confident in her prospects, having interned at a CBS affiliate station in San Francisco and having been accepted to Stanford University’s Mass Media Institute. However, the interview ended up being what she calls the biggest rejection in life.

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Deborah Kan

The news director at the television station watched her interview tape for one minute before stopping it and told her squarely that she didn’t have it and shouldn’t waste her time in the industry. She was undoubtedly devastated and saddened by the response. But later the sadness turned to anger.

“I felt anger like I’ve never felt in my entire life. I felt so angry that anyone can possibly say to me, ‘You cannot do it.’ So I promised myself that day I was going to prove him wrong. And to this very day, I thank him. I thank him because when there are times where someone says to me, ‘Deborah, I don’t think you can do this,’ I think of him and I do it,” Kan explains.

The news director was just one of several people who had a significant impact on Kan’s distinguished journalism career with Thomson Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. Another one of her influencers is Geraldine Cox, founder of Sunrise Children’s Village orphanage outside of Phnom Penh.

Cox was working in the city in 1997 during the bloody coup of the government led by Hun Sen. When all foreigners were fleeing the country, Cox stayed behind and volunteered to watch over children at the orphanage where nobody was taking care of them. Staying behind took a lot of courage as did calling CNN back then to tell them of what was really happening in the country.

At Sunrise, Kan met two girls who were physically scarred by acid, yet always had a smile on their faces. The veteran journalist was taken aback by their resilience.

“It’s a characteristic that I feel is essential today for where and how we should be talking to our girls,” she says.

Looking past and ahead

On what 2030 holds, Kan looked back on her own experiences as a journalist as an indicator on how fast things can change.

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In 1994, she was in Seoul to cover the death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. On one day, she woke up early to exercise to start off her day as she often does, but she was turned away by a staff member at the hotel gym. Kan figured that the gym wasn’t opened yet but the attendant bluntly said no women. So she asked where the women’s gym was and the person said there were none.

In 1996, Kan was on a media tour of the aircraft carrier USS Independence. Besides herself and another female reporter, the rest of the group were men. Three hours into the tour, they were told that they would need to spend the night on the aircraft carrier because their transport broke down. For the entirety of their stay, Kan and the other female reporter had several guards watching them.

“This was 1996, there was not a single woman on the USS Independence. It was an entire male crew,” Kan recalls.

Then four or five years ago, she was invited to go onboard another carrier, the USS George Bush. She took her family and this time she was given a tour by a woman crew member.

“I said to her, ‘how many women are on board these days?’ She said on that ship, there was about a one-third women crew. And I was like, ‘go women’. I’m sure today that number is even higher. They were everything from fighter pilots down to engineers,” Kan expresses.

Like Lee, she is unsure what the future holds for the workplace or her two daughters but she’s hopeful.

“I don’t know what’s it going to be like but I will tell you I love the fact that both of them have come home from school and said ‘I’ve been a victim of sexism.’ And why do I love that? Because they’re so aware of it,” Kan says.

She hopes that in 15 years there would be no more conversations on glass ceilings and women on executive boards because it won’t be an issue anymore. She believes what people can do right now is not to limit themselves.

“If we can say I’m worthy and I can do this, I think we’re going to see a lot more results,” she says. “I, 100 percent, believe that change begins within ourselves.”

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