Just barely over half of the women in Hong Kong are actively working or are actively seeking jobs. This number is lagging behind the men’s participation rate, which is at 68.5 per cent, and is rather far behind other advanced economies of the world. This information is derived from a study by the Legislative Council secretariat.

One of the major reasons given for the lower participation rate is inadequate childcare facilities. There are either not enough facilities available, the prices being too high, or service hours being too short. As a result, many women are choosing to care for their children, leaving only approximately 50.8 per cent of women participating in the workforce. Comparatively, 70.2 per cent of women in Sweden participate in the workforce, 65.4 per cent in New Zealand, 61.5 per cent in Canada and 59.8 per cent in Australia.

“There are persistent concerns that inadequate policy support for local working mothers is restraining female employment. There is further growth potential in female employment in the coming years,” says the Legislative Council report.

It is a well known fact that Hong Kong has been suffering from a shortage of workers over the past decade. The government warned in May that the city would be short of more than a quarter of a million workers by 2027, thanks to an ageing population and low birth rates.

The Legco report also stated that women’s workforce participation rate had increased from 45.1 per cent in 1997 to the 50.8 per cent we have today. Married women who did not have any children showed a 79.4 participation rate. However, the rate dropped drastically to 56.6per cent if they had children aged up to 14.

The report said there were only about 1,730 places in childcare services provided by subsidised institutions for infants aged two or below. That meant less than 2 per cent of infants could enrol in such services.

Childcare services in Hong Kong have also been found to be very expensive. Median monthly fees are said to be around HK$5,537 (US$710) for children aged two and under, and about HK$4,150 for those between two and three years. Many of these healthcare services only provide half day options, leaving the mother with little time to work.

“By and large, parents of young kids need more flexibility in working hours and to take more leave for ad hoc childcare responsibilities, but local employers are generally reluctant to offer such flexibility,” it added.

Another related matter that may be contributing for the low participation rate is the tradition of having the mothers stay at home to care for the family and household while the father remains the sole breadwinner.

Carol Ng Man-yee, chairwoman of the Confederation of Trade Unions, was also cited saying that the long working hours of Hong Kong would leave mothers with absolutely no time to care for the needs of her children. Additionally, she also pointed out a “very common” practice wherein an employer would not renew the contracts of women who were pregnant.