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Diversity & Inclusiveness: Ethnic minorities - the next frontier for Hong Kong

11 March 2023

Ferheen Mahomed, Founder & CEO of C&TM Limited
Ferheen Mahomed, Founder & CEO of C&TM Limited

As we celebrate International Women's Day in Hong Kong this week and recognise the achievements of women in closing the gender gap, it is also important to reflect on the need for more inclusiveness towards ethnic minorities in Hong Kong.

International Women's Day is a global celebration of the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements made by women. It is also a day to raise awareness about all forms of inequality and promote inclusiveness for all.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Hong Kong's ethnic minorities are well behind the general population in climbing the corporate ladder. However, data about the success (or otherwise failure) of Hong Kong ethnic minorities in Hong Kong is hard to find. According to the 2016 Population By-Census, the number of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong was around 8%, which was a 3% increase from 5% of the population in 2006. However, of the nearly 1,500 staff members serving on 100 publicly available advisory bodies, only 1.9% are people from ethnic minority groups, according to The Zubin Foundation. This lack of representation is a clear indication that there is a crying need in Hong Kong to be more inclusive of ethnic minorities.

However, inclusiveness is not about making up more ethnic minorities in high places. I do not believe that lowering the barriers for certain ethnic minorities to move up to high positions is the panacea. This form of positive discrimination, as practised in many countries, may result in groups being overly reliant on help and handouts. Positive discrimination is a clutch which many will find hard to do away with, once hooked. We must resist the temptation to live on relying on handouts from society, just so that the numbers can be dressed up.

Instead, we must start with education and include ethnic minorities in the very fabric of our society.

According to a report by the Hong Kong Education Bureau in 2021/22, students from non-Chinese speaking (NCS) backgrounds accounted for 8.6% of the total student population in primary schools and only 4.4% in secondary schools in Hong Kong, suggested a larger than usual drop-out numbers among ethnic minorities. I do not know exactly why this is the case. However, this low number of NCS students in secondary schools could be attributed to the language and cultural barriers that they face in schools.

Another study by the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute also found that ethnic minority students only understand 70% of what is being taught in class. This raises concerns whether the education system is somewhat structured in a way less inclusive in the ways ethnic minorities learn and operate, even from a young age. I believe it is imperative for Hong Kong to encourage and provide extra support to ethnic minorities to master the Chinese language, without which they cannot hope to succeed in today's Hong Kong.

Businesses have a crucial role to play in promoting ethnic inclusiveness and diversity in Hong Kong. Businesses need to eradicate any unconscious bias among them that suggests ethnic minorities may somehow be inferior or be suited only to blue collar jobs or roles as junior staff rather than high flying executives. This kind of bias has no basis. We now have a lot of data from around the world that shows more gender-inclusive businesses tend to do better than those that are not. I have little doubt that a more ethnically inclusive business will have similar effects.

Businesses can create a more inclusive workplace by providing equal opportunities for all employees, regardless of their ethnic background, gender, or other personal traits.

In the end, Hong Kong needs to create a level playing field where every individual has an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of their ethnicity. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that every individual has access to the same resources, opportunities, and rights, regardless of their ethnicity. We must start with education and end with businesses. We need to educate our children from the ethnic minority groups so that they have the skills to compete in a Chinese language majority society, and we need businesses to give those with equal mastery of skills and knowledge the chance to excel.

As a society, we must not subscribe to the idea that being inclusive is solely about meeting quotas. It is about recognising the value that every individual brings to the table and creating a diverse and inclusive environment where everyone feels valued, respected, and supported.

One day, hopefully, we can celebrate a Diversity & Inclusiveness Day where every segment of the population has equal access, equal opportunities, and equal rights to reach for the top. It is only by working together and embracing our differences that we can create a truly inclusive society that benefits us all.

Ferheen Mahomed

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Ferheen Mahomed is the Founder and CEO of C&TM Limited, an independent consulting company providing business consultancy services to corporates and family offices in the area of transaction management and situations management. She previously served as the Group General Counsel for Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX), where she was responsible for all legal affairs, compliance matters, and company secretarial services. Ferheen has spent almost 20 years in the finance sector as General Counsel and has held executive positions for various large multi-nationals. She is a firm believer in corporate governance and a director of the HKINED Association. Ferheen is also actively involved in philanthropic efforts, including supporting women's education and integrating Hong Kong's ethnic minorities into society. She is a UK and HK qualified lawyer and is fluent in spoken and written English, Cantonese and Putonghua

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