Women reentering the workplace struggle with changed environments and gender stereotypes
by Fiona Chan & Minnie Wong
On a Sunday afternoon, children’s laughter rings out around the indoor playground of a private housing estate in Hang Hau. Young mothers are chasing after their children, as 49-year-old Kwong Kam-yuk walks by, behind her son Cheung Ho-yin who stops from time to time to wait for his mother to catch up.
Ho-yin is now 19 and his mother returned to work in 2014 after spending 18 years taking care of him until he entered university. “I wanted to rejoin society, I’d been cut off from it for too long,” Kwong says.
After a few job changes, she is now an office cleaning lady for a cosmetics retailing company. But she has found it hard to readjust to the pace of work after spending close to two decades away from the workplace.
She says, teary-eyed, that many colleagues have complained about and disliked her for being a slow worker. “When I was a homemaker, there was no need for me to rush at all. Nobody will push you at home,” she says.
Kwong recalls her first day of work at the company when she was asked to remember how to match each cup with its owner. She was responsible for washing the cups of more than 20 staff members, and each one of them had around four to five cups. Kwong was required to remember which belonged to whom within three days.
To help herself remember, she marked down the characteristics of each cup and the names of the cup owners on a piece of paper, but was barred from using the “cheat sheet” when she was at work. This caused her intense anxiety.
“I was always scared of being absent-minded, even when I was in bed. I read my paper again and again frequently,” she says.
As Kwong is saying this, her son gently places his hands on her shoulders. “She always forgets about things, so there is always a pile of papers in her pocket,” he says.
Kwong’s anxiety is familiar to 44-year-old Money Chan, another homemaker who quit her job to raise her children. Although her English name is Money, money is not the reason she decided to rejoin the workforce last year after leaving it in 2001.
“After all these years, I just want to spend a few hours happily in the workplace and be reintegrated into society,” she says.
Chan worked for a brand-name boutique before 2001, so she chose the same sector when she decided to work again. With an educational level of Secondary Five, Chan was a shop manager in the past. In today’s job market, her educational attainment is no longer competitive and she cannot find such a senior position.
This time around, she worked as a saleswoman, and she was struck by how much things had changed. “The whole market, including the products, the services and all the arrangements in the shop, has changed,” says Chan, “It makes me feel as if I am suffocating.”
Like Kwong, Chan felt great pressure from the demand for efficiency in her workplace. “You will panic. You cannot be slow,” she says. “People keep speaking on the walkie talkie. It makes you feel very exhausted.”
The mental and physical strains of the job prompted Chan to resign. She now works part-time in a shop selling handmade accessories and children’s wear.
Difficulties in adapting to the demands of a much-changed workplace are just one of the challenges former homemakers face after a long period of absence. They frequently also have juggle family responsibilities.
For instance, although her son is now grown up, Kwong Kam-yuk still has to take care of her 86-year-old parents-in-law, which means she cannot work full-time. Both her parents-in-law have health problems like high blood pressure and high cholesterol; they sometimes get lost on the streets. Also, they both speak Fujianese, which makes it difficult for them to communicate with their doctor. Therefore, Kwong has to accompany them to their appointments.
The difficulties faced by women like Kwong and Chan make it harder for the government to achieve its goal of getting more women to rejoin the workforce. As the population ages, Hong Kong faces a labour shortage. In the 2013 consultation document on population policy, the government proposed that more women should be encouraged back to work to ease the labour shortage.
But this is easier said than done because women are still held back due to structural issues such as access to affordable childcare, the lack of family friendly workplace policies and gender stereotypes.
Si-si Liu Pui-shan, the director of the Hong Kong Federation of Women’s Centres, says many women tend to choose part-time jobs due to their family responsibilities. This limits their income and career prospects, putting them in a disadvantaged position.
As women usually earn less than men in the family, they are often the ones who have to give up their careers to take care of the family. “Why should women be the ones to bear the care-giving responsibility from the very beginning?” she says.
Not only are women expected to take up the homemaker role, but Liu points out that society and employers do not recognise household management and care-giving as legitimate work experience. This despite the fact that many of the tasks women perform in the home, such as lifting and transferring the elderly, are similar in nature to paid work in places like care homes.
If they want recognition of such skills, former homemakers can enroll for training courses with the Employees Retraining Board (ERB), which is an independent statutory body established under the Employees Retraining Ordinance. The ERB has been providing and funding market-driven and employment-oriented training courses since 1992.
Some of these training courses are placement-tied, offering trainees with an attendance rate of at least 80 per cent three to six month placements to help them re-enter the job market. According to the ERB, up to 80 per cent of trainees in 2015-16 were women.
Liu says most of the courses cater to employers’ needs and are focused on sectors that are experiencing a shortage of labour. For instance, because of the ageing population and the need for caregivers in nursing homes, the ERB runs courses for potential caregivers which teach them how to feed the elderly, help them to walk, and even assist them with simple physiotherapy treatment.
The problem is, although there are vacancies for these jobs, there is also a high turnover because of the long hours, hard work and low pay.
Wu Mei-lin, founder of the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association, says there are few choices of trades suitable for middle-aged women re-entering the workforce. She says the government does not do enough to help and social service sectors such as elderly services and meal delivery are under-resourced.
“If the government only allocates small amounts of funding to welfare grants… the social services’ work that is suitable for female homemakers will be limited, hard and with long working hours. No one will be willing to do it. Why can’t the government make it become a professional industry which is suitable for more people to join? ” says Wu.
To address this problem, five students and recent graduates from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, established a social enterprise in 2015 called FeStyle. Having noticed that some working people are unable to or do not have time to buy fresh ingredients after they finish work, the founders created an online shopping platform. It employs female homemakers to buy fresh ingredients from wet markets on behalf of their customers.
“This social mission is to help female homemakers become empowered and employed,” says one of the founders Yip Hiu-wai. She believes society should provide more suitable work opportunities for middle-aged female homemakers to exercise their talents and skills, especially as society is now more concerned about gender equality and equal rights.
Another co-founder Fung Toi-sze says society does not seem aware of the everyday problems women face in the job market. She says the gender issues most people focus on are sex discrimination and domestic violence.
“Non-governmental organisations and social workers are only concerned about issues like teenagers’ problems, drug abuse, elderly problems, and even community development. But it is rare for those non-governmental organisations to hold any workshops for women specifically,” says Fung.
The project has recruited a limited number of homemakers and is still in its infancy. The idea is to recognise and make the most of the skills homemakers possess and to empower them through work.
“The change may be small, but it is a process,” says Wong Ka-wing, another founder of FeStyle.
Edited by Tiff Chan