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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.

Kwong Kam-yuk
Kwong Kam-yuk

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.