• Renee Conklin

Motherhood Brain Drain in Hong Kong

Updated: Jul 29, 2019

Last week I attended a breakfast session about the “motherhood brain drain” hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce and Back to Work Hong Kong. I’ve attended many events on this type of topic over the years. Any HR professional working in HK or working mom (or moms who want to work but are unable to) know this landscape well. The problems are entrenched and numerous but the solutions are few.


Firstly, Hong Kong has no standard working hours. We regularly clock up the longest working hours in the world (50.1 hours per week). The importance of face time and not leaving the office before the boss contributes to this expectation of physically being in the office. This makes it nearly impossible for working mothers who need a bit of flexibility to juggle work and family.


Contributing to the issue, suitable childcare options at the 0-3 age range are virtually nil. Instead of opening more childcare centers—by some estimates, there are only 1,000 slots for 20,000 children—the HK government is simply considering increasing the quotas of foreign domestic helpers. Yet, only 1 in 3 Hong Kong families with children have a live-in helper. Of course, domestic helpers can be a great option, but many of them are not professional caregivers and often, new mother struggle with simply handing over their child to someone who is essentially a stranger.


Things need to change. Indeed, some change is happening at large MNC’s but it’s driven at an individual and a company level. That is not enough. Change needs to come from top-down with a focus on government and policy. The Hong Kong government is loathe to adopt any policy that will increase costs to industry in this business-friendly city. It’s true that the government has recently announced some improvements including an increase of the maternity leave policy from 10 weeks to 14 weeks and a commitment to source more childcare places by 2020. They also have some guidance for employers on their website about family friendly employment practices. Although these small steps are positive, they are not nearly enough. What else can we be doing to develop solutions to the problem of the motherhood brain drain?




Start small

Many companies hesitate to enact a flexible work policy because they worry about the administration, setting a precedent or the impact on efficiency. To those companies, I say – start small. You don’t have to roll out a full blown flexi time or working from home (WFH) policy. You could give an employee adjusted working hours because they are training for an ultra marathon or need to care for an elderly relative for a period of time. Try some test cases first and see how they work in your business. In my last role, I saw a talented employee leave because the boss was unwilling to grant him flexible time to care for his sick wife. We not only lost a good employee but this decision had a ripple effect on other employees who witnessed it and worried what would happen if they were in the same situation.  


Be open to the possibility of non-traditional work arrangements.

Model the behaviour

It’s fantastic that many companies are rolling out flexible work policies. But if no one if using them, then they might as well not exist. Someone—usually a senior individual—needs to take the lead to demonstrate that flexible work really does work. In a previous role, the head of my department starting working from home three days a week. Once she realized that she could continue to be just as effective at her job (and indeed, perhaps happier), she strongly encouraged the rest of us to do the same. I started working from home 1-2 days per week and I loved it. I actually got more work done! Not every job is suitable for WFH, but consider other options that might be suitable for your employees.


Be a case study

Multi-national corporations in Hong Kong have been attempting to do their part. They’ve started returnship programs. They’ve rolled-out flexible work policies. They’ve adopted longer maternity leave periods than the statutory minimum. But how do we know if any of this is making any difference? Is there a company out there who is willing to become a case study to demonstrate to its peers in HK that their efforts have had an impact on their bottom line? Some general case studies examples can be found on the gov.hk website, but more quantifiable metrics will help to strengthen the business rationale.


Strength in numbers

If major industries in HK (such as banking, legal and professional services) banded together to advocate for standard working hours and family-friendly policies, could we finally see an end to Hong Kong’s motherhood brain drain?


I’m reminded of the recent landmark case of in HK involving same-sex spousal visas. Lodged in 2015, QT filed a judicial review against the Immigration Department based on their refusal to grant her a dependent visa, which is typically available for heterosexual couples. It went through several appeals and pushed through the system for several years before multiple banks advocated to support QT, adding their considerable lobbying strength to the issue. At the end of 2018, QT won in what was seen as a triumph for the LGBTQ community in Hong Kong. Can the same be done to combat the motherhood brain drain?


I am not a mother myself, but as an HR professional, I’ve seen first-hand the impact of the motherhood brain drain on companies in Hong Kong. Talented women stepped out of the workforce after having children and finding it difficult to return to the grueling hours and travel commitments in financial services. Several of my friends struggle to balance full-time work with childcare responsibilities. Let’s work together to chip away at the problems and develop solutions to combat the motherhood brain drain so Hong Kong women can fully participate in the labor force.


Is your company being impacted by the motherhood brain drain? Call RC HR Consulting to see how we can help.


Renee Conklin is an HR Leader who writes about talent attraction, employee engagement and the future of work. She is the founder of RC HR Consulting.


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