, Hong Kong
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Hong Kong’s women in insurance rising in a male-dominated business sector

Hong Kong’s female insurance executives show how they take on leadership roles.

Here’s a bitter truth to chew on from the latest Women, Business, and the Law 2024 report by the World Bank: the global gender gap in the workplace is wider than previously estimated.

Taking into account legal differences related to violence and childcare, women have less than two-thirds of the rights enjoyed by men. This means that no country, not even the wealthiest, provides equal opportunities for women.

The World Bank report expands its analysis to include indicators like safety from violence and access to childcare services, shedding light on critical factors that impact women’s participation in the workforce. When these measures are considered, women, on average, have only 64% of the legal protections that men do, a significant decrease from the previous estimate of 77%.

There is also an alarming implementation gap between legal reforms and actual outcomes for women in 190 economies. Whilst laws may imply equal rights, countries have established less than 40% of the necessary systems for their full implementation.

For example, although many countries have laws mandating equal pay, only a fraction have adopted measures to address the pay gap effectively. Effective implementation of equal-opportunity laws requires a robust supporting framework, including strong enforcement mechanisms and healthcare services for survivors of violence. Closing the gender gap in business and the law could significantly boost global GDP, but reforms have been slow.

Hong Kong’s women insurance leaders were interviewed by Insurance Asia about the gender disparity; and here, the magazine shares excerpts from these eye-opening exclusive chats.


What achievements/insights can you share based on your experience in a male-dominated industry?

Denise Au-Yeung, Chief Strategy Officer of FTLife: As a woman leader in the insurance industry, my journey has been both challenging and rewarding. One of the most notable achievements is contributing to a corporate culture that values diverse perspectives and inclusive leadership. Embracing the “Grow as One” value of FTLife, my tenure here has been focused on the collective growth of our team, transcending traditional insurance roles to deliver innovative solutions to create value beyond insurance to all our stakeholders. We’ve cultivated a collaborative spirit that recognises the power of working as a unified force, which has been instrumental in driving the company toward achieving our broader business visions.

Carrie Tong, Chief Operations Officer of Manulife Hong Kong & Macau: A diverse and inclusive workplace culture creates opportunities for people to bring their best selves to work, and to develop and grow. At Manulife, diversity is celebrated, and inclusion is deeply embedded in our culture. I am proud to lead our Manulife HK & Macau operations, where women account for 72% of our workforce, looking after our customers, agents and each other every day! Whilst women are widely perceived as nurturing, empathetic and detail-oriented, it is also backed in equal measures by critical thinking, and adaptability, coupled with enormous will to succeed.

Catherine Chia, Chief Human Resources Officer of Prudential: There have been a number of experiences throughout my career that have impacted me in my growth as a female leader. One of them was a conversation that I had with a Board member at one of my previous companies; at that time she was the only female on the Board. She gave me a piece of advice: figure out what your gender uniqueness as [a] female is; celebrate it, lean into it and bring it wholeheartedly into the leadership table. Put simply, I embrace the qualities that I have as a female and what’s unique to me so that I come to work every day as my true authentic self.

Shelyne Shum, Chief Partnership Distribution Officer of FWD Life: As a female leader in this industry, I prioritise the well-being of our team members and strive to create an inclusive corporate environment. Additionally, I aspire to inspire more women in the workplace to achieve shared goals, empowering each member to reach their full potential. I am very proud to be part of the FWD team that recently launched an exclusive brand, FWD Private. Our team’s goal was not only developing a pioneering approach to legacy planning dedicated to high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth individuals but also a commitment to forward-thinking innovation and bespoke offerings. Launching FWD Private is a significant milestone for both FWD and myself. The whole journey includes formulating a business strategy, engaging various stakeholders and driving implementation. From growing this high-net-worth segment four years ago and building a solid foundation to creating this label in only nine months, we have had some great accomplishments in a short period of time, and I am honoured to be part of this visionary team.
Despite progress, women remain underrepresented in senior leadership positions across various industries, including insurance. What systemic changes do you believe are necessary to bridge the gender leadership gap in the insurance sector?
: At FTLife, we believe that professional advancement is driven by individual capability and expertise in stakeholder management, rather than any gender-based factors. Our leadership reflects the varied strengths within our workforce, as we consistently emphasise proficiency and commitment as the key drivers of success. Confronting the gender leadership gap in the insurance industry, FTLife is an advocate for a workplace rooted in diversity and inclusion. Our objective hiring practices, flexible work policies, and equitable professional development opportunities are intentionally designed to be inclusive, providing a level playing field for every member of our team.

Tong: Looking across our Hong Kong & Macau offices at Manulife, females represent 50% of those at AVP and above levels and 39% of our senior management team. Whilst this is a very encouraging figure, it is evident that we still have more work to do in advancing diversity and empowerment to cultivate a strong talent pipeline. It’s about raising awareness against bias and taking action for equality. This involves consistent efforts ranging from hiring, and progression of diverse talent, to individualised career development — to continue to bring a more gender-balanced and diverse organisation.

Chia: I believe organisations should work even harder to develop female leaders. These female leaders should be identified early in their careers and organisations should have a long view on supporting them through their various life stages and needs. For example, when they need to come in to work later they need to drop off their child at school or have more flexibility in their schedule to look after an elderly parent. The conditions need to be created to enable female colleagues to balance their responsibilities towards her family as well as at work. Secondly, the corporate language that we use is very important. Strip away language that connotes gender bias or any type of unconscious bias in how we assess performance, how we make decisions around people hiring, and who to promote so that everyone is given an opportunity to succeed and grow. Thirdly, have a sponsorship or mentoring programme to support female leaders and consciously help them to succeed, especially at the senior level where it is traditionally a lot more male-dominated. Help build their confidence, and amplify their voice and strengths. If I think about my journey to my role as a senior female leader, what has helped me has been managers and mentors who presented me with opportunities, encouraged me and nudged me to take the risk and take the stretch. They were always there to coach me and support me. When my daughter was younger I was able to work from home and be present for her as a mother. Through this flexibility, I could find a way to integrate work and life.

Shum: When encountering challenges or conflicts, women leaders are often able to demonstrate a cooperative and thoughtful approach. They prioritise effective communication, problem-solving, and emotional support. Recognising and valuing these leadership qualities is crucial for inspiring and guiding teams towards shared objectives. Women’s unique contributions are essential for fostering a productive and inclusive organisational culture. At FWD, we strongly believe in promoting gender diversity and inclusion in the insurance sector. We are committed to creating a more equitable and successful industry that benefits all stakeholders involved.
Are there any innovative approaches or technologies that you believe hold promise for creating more inclusive workplaces and levelling the playing field for women leaders?
: Embracing the values of “Ownership” and a robust “Work Ethic,” we at FTLife are committed to fostering a culture that encourages the use of innovative technologies and processes to drive inclusivity. Innovation in workplace inclusivity is a continuous journey, with technology serving as a crucial catalyst. For example, “8alance,” our bespoke app for staff engagement, levels the playing field for employee recognition. It ensures that every team member has the chance to be acknowledged. By enabling recognition to permeate across diverse workgroups rather than just descending from higher echelons, 8alance helps to affirm that all employees, irrespective of their role, are appreciated. This approach not only strengthens diversity and equity but also significantly boosts employee morale and retention. The feeling of being recognised and valued is crucial for job satisfaction, which can lead to a heightened collective ambition to grow and succeed together.

Tong: In the evolving digital era, Gen AI can be a tool for empowering women and promoting gender equity in the workplace from digital assistants that have the potential to tackle some mundane, repetitive responsibilities for better work-life balance, to solutions tailored for postnatal new mothers to navigate and return to work. It’s also equally important that we foster an inclusive working environment and create a shared space for colleagues to show support for each other and towards meaningful causes. For example, we have different employee-run resource groups such as the Global Women’s Alliance which supports female colleagues to reach their full potential through professional development workshops, networking and community engagement.

Chia: At Prudential, diversity and inclusion is a strategic priority. We currently have 35% female representation in our Group Leadership Team. We have challenged ourselves further and set a new target of 40% female representation by the end of 2026. To do this, we will be working hard to listen to our colleagues and understand what the real challenges are, and work concertedly towards addressing them. Inclusion is about mindset change, not ticking the box. It needs to be embedded in our culture, in everything we do, both internally with our talent, and externally with our customers, partners and communities. We should celebrate our differences and how they can enhance our thinking as an organisation.

Shum: At FWD, we try to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed and thrive in the organisation. A key factor that has traditionally prevented women from attaining leadership roles is family commitments. In this digital era, our employees can leverage technologies to foster communications and provide better support to teams or clients, which would give more flexibility and can be a more effective way of balancing professional and personal responsibilities. With the growing embrace of digital tools after the pandemic, I expect flexible work arrangements will become even more prevalent in the future.
Lastly, what advice would you give fellow women (or to the men) in this industry?
Au-Yeung: Reflecting on my personal motto: “Live with delight!” I am inspired to encourage my fellows in the insurance industry to nurture a sense of joy and fulfilment on their professional journeys. Our field abounds with unique challenges and opportunities; embracing these with enthusiasm and a positive mindset is essential for achieving both career success and personal satisfaction. The most rewarding careers are those where passion and purpose intersect, creating significant value and synergy. In the insurance sector, we are privileged to have the profound ability to make a positive impact on people’s lives.

Tong: Embrace a non-linear career path by moving away from the traditional linear path up the corporate ladder. This will help you continue to learn and grow, develop diverse skill sets, and open new doors. Take risks and embrace new opportunities so that you are ready for the future of work. Every one of us needs to speak up, show up and show support to the women we work with every day!

Chia: You don’t have to try and succeed alone. Build a support network with family members, mentors, and colleagues to champion you. To women, support other women and help them succeed. Importantly, always bring your true authentic self to work.

Shum: I believe that it is vital for women to have a platform to showcase their capabilities and shine. Women should never stop trying to be vocal and confident in articulating their thoughts and aspirations, as persistence and determination are the keys to success. My advice to both women and men in the insurance industry is to work hard, be passionate about what you do, and always strive for excellence. We should remember that success is not gender-specific, and with dedication and perseverance, anyone can achieve their goals!

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