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Can Hong Kong end all-male boards?

New rules to address Hong Kong's low level of female board representation are the subject of fierce debate.
Can Hong Kong end all-male boards?

Critics and defenders of Hong Kong’s low level of board diversity have lined up as new rules mandating the end of all-male boards by January 2025 begin to impact listed firms.

“Let’s not be hypocrites. In the majority of cases, Hong Kong corporates are for diversity on paper but not in practice,” Yoo-Kyung Park, Asia head for sustainable investing and governance for APG, a Dutch pension fund, told AsianInvestor.

“I don’t like seeing [emphasis on diversity] in their annual report when women are 10% of the board. If they don’t believe in it – if they think diversity isn’t helpful - then they should say so," she said.

"Any explanation I would be pleased to read. Some would say ‘this is men’s business’. Hong Kong corporate boards are too traditional, they don’t make any effort,” she added.

APG’s global policy is to vote against any nominated committee chair – whether male or female – at companies where female board representation is below 30%.

According to MSCI, 28% of Hong Kong’s listed companies have no women on their boards, compared with 19% in Singapore, 15% in Japan and 5% in India. In Asia, only South Korea (42%) and Indonesia (50%) have a lower proportion. At just 7% of Hong Kong companies, 30% or more of the board is female; in Singapore the proportion is 14%.

“Board diversity in Hong Kong is pretty appalling,” Jane Moir, research director of the Asian Corporate Governance Association (ACGA), in Hong Kong, told AsianInvestor. “Part of this is because of the growth of Chinese tech firms listed in Hong Kong. Our impression is that you have male founders who want their mates,” she said, adding that the low ratio of women at the top was duplicated among younger, less senior employees.

END TO ALL-MALE BOARDS?

The Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEX) introduced new rules in January requiring all currently listed firms to have at least one female board director by January 2025. HKEX estimates this will create 800 vacancies for directors at Hong Kong’s more than 2,500 listed companies.

“Having a single woman on a board doesn’t sound like much but when you look at it in terms of 800 new board positions for women it feels more substantial,” Susanne Harris, a partner in the Hong Kong office of Mayer Brown, told AsianInvestor.

She said the move was already mobilising stakeholders at all-male board companies to push for reform but that the large number of family-owned businesses had tilted the structure of boards historically towards few or no women, a practice that would take a long time to change.

“In the circles I move in [people] have been buoyed by this development,” said Harris, who is also co-chair of the company’s women’s network in Asia.

“The regulatory requirement and wider push matter to drive diversity in Hong Kong,” Xiaoshu Wang, vice president and ESG research China team lead at MSCI, told AsianInvestor.

Both Harris and Wang pointed to the large number of women in senior leadership positions in Hong Kong already, in contrast to South Korea and Japan. “In Hong Kong, there are lots of well-educated women in the workforce. But more efforts and guidance are needed to help them become leaders. We need good career paths and promotional channels to feed the pipeline to board appointments. Government [intervention] is needed,” Wang said.

But Park said large companies are reluctant to take the lead. “Someone has to go first. Diversity isn’t just about board and executive level [representation]: it reaches to the bottom of the organisation and [includes] the [gender] pay gap.” According to MSCI, 5% of Hong Kong companies have female chief executives, compared to 14% in Singapore.

PROSPECTS FOR CHANGE

Evidence from non-binding requirements for IPO applicants supports Harris’ prediction that stakeholder pressure will achieve progress before the January 2025 deadline.

The HKEX has required IPO applicants to commit to increasing gender diversity on their boards, since May 2019. The proportion of new IPO applications with at least one female director on their boards grew from 70% in 2019 to 82% in 2022. From July, IPO applicants with all-male boards will not be accepted.

However, Park said that little had changed in recent months in her engagement with companies. “They tell me: Hong Kong has a very small pool, we can’t find the right talent. I say: Hong Kong is Asia’s global financial capital, if Hong Kong can’t do it….!”

“I raise the question every time I meet them. I always say [you have] too few women, have you made any effort to change? And it’s ‘no’,” she said, adding that sometimes boards didn’t even realise that investors believed diversity is important.

¬ Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.
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