Monday, 3 March 2014

Debating Women

The BBC's Zeinab Badawi moderates the panel of four successful women
Tonight I attended the Intelligence Square debate at the Asia Society where the motion was "The hand that rocks the cradle cannot rock the boardroom".

Taped for broadcast on March 15 on the BBC and hosted by the network's Zeinab Badawi, the speakers for and against the motion had very impressive CVs.

For the motion was Allison Pearson, an award-winning journalist and author who wrote I Don't know How She Does It. For the novel, she interviewed many working women and heard many anecdotes of how difficult it is for them to balance career and home.

Debora Spar is the president of Barnard College, a liberal arts college for women and was previously senior associate dean for the faculty of research and development at Harvard Business School. She also wrote Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.

Against the motion was Helena Morrissey who is CEO of Newton Investment Management. She founded the 30% club to get 30 percent of women on UK corporate boards and has a stay-at-home husband and nine -- yes nine -- children.

Zhang Xin is the CEO of SOHO China, the largest real estate developer in China. She moved to Hong Kong at the age of 14 working 12-hour days in factories before going to England to study and eventually got a Masters in development economics from Cambridge University. She and her husband Pan Shiyi started SOHO China in 1995 and they have two boys.

Before the debate the audience was asked their opinion about the motion. Nineteen percent said "I don't know", 21 percent were for the motion, 60 percent against.

Spar started the debate and being an academic she gave a lot of figures to prove her argument that to be a successful working mother the hours needed to be put into both jobs is beyond 24 hours a day.

She said that women spend an average of 33 hours a week on housework and to be a CEO one has to spend 50-70 hours a week working on the job that includes international travel and conference calls in odd hours.

In the United States, 15 percent of board positions are held by women (9 percent in Hong Kong, 16 percent of women are partners at law firms, while 16 percent of women are in the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, and 19 percent in high court.

Spar concluded there were solutions but they were stark. If a woman wanted to have a successful career and have children, they had to hire help (and make lots of money), or they could have kids early before charging into the boardroom, or not have kids at all.

However, Morrissey begged to differ. She felt that women spend too much time fretting over what they couldn't do when they should focus their energy on figuring out how to make family and career work.

Meanwhile for the motion Pearson gave a humorous argument. She said women ran a country called Home, where men don't know where toilet paper comes from and think it's from the toilet paper fairy.

She reported interviewing many working women who felt they were not meeting their own standards and had bad health because they put everyone else in the family ahead of them.

Pearson added that men put pictures of their family on their desks to show they are family-oriented, but women seldom do that to try to avoid being judged. One joked to Spar that it's better to admit to being a drug addict because at least there's a rehab program for it.

And then Zhang rounded up the rear trying to dispel the preconception that women are not as strong as men by saying China had 30 percent more female gold medallists than male.

She also said that women are more resilient, men not so and that they need more support from women to be successful whereas women could do it on their own. She added that at SOHO China, the staff ratio was 50 percent men, 50 percent women and proudly said they leave home at a decent hour to have dinner with their families.

Zhang also said that women needed to have PhDs -- poor, hungry and determined.

A lively Q&A followed, with some women in the audience questioning if they were good mothers, or how do you find the work-life balance. One audience member who tracks women in Hong Kong boards reported that in 2009 there were 8.9 percent and now it's 9.6 percent. It's an improvement, but she described it moving at a glacial pace.

Before the debate I hadn't given much thought of the topic, and was one of the 19 percent who didn't know. But after listening to the speakers, I voted for the motion because Spar and Pearson gave more convincing arguments, that today, the reality is that it is extremely difficult for women to have it all. Morrissey has a husband who looks after the children, while Zhang is a billionaire. They are not representative of the vast majority of working women.

In the end the audience voted 1 percent "I don't know", 48 percent against and 51 percent for the motion.

Many people probably felt the same as me, while there were many young women in particular who were determined to vote against the motion because of their own personal conviction, not because of the debate.

In some ways I wish this debate took place 15, 20 years ago, because back then I thought I women could either have one or the other, not both. Then I thought it was possible, but there was no partner to make having a children an option.

We have to make do with the cards we are dealt with, but more importantly as Morrissey says, we should not be fretting or feeling guilty, but taking that energy and channeling it towards more productivity in whatever we are doing.

And we should be role models to the next generation of women to succeed in whatever they want to do, be it a CEO or a stay-at-home mom -- or both. There should be various shades on the definition of success.

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