Women rule the roost in Hong Kong banking

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By:
Eric Ellis
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Hong Kong’s belated embrace of diversity has meant a dozen of its banks are now run by women, but there’s clearly more work to be done.

Louisa Cheang_780
Louisa Cheang, Hang Seng Bank


When Margaret Leung, a veteran Hong Kong banker, was appointed to run Hang Seng Bank in 2009, the news made waves.

Seen through a strictly business prism, Leung’s appointment was unremarkable. She had been a loyal lifer at HSBC (which owns 62% of Hang Seng), joining the bank in 1978 soon after she graduated from Hong Kong University with a commerce degree. Her last job at HSBC was as group general manager and joint head of global commercial banking, managing HSBC’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) business. Well-regarded internally, Leung clearly knew what she doing, building a CV well-suited to run the SME-intense Hang Seng.

But in gender terms, Leung was an outlier. Hang Seng, founded in 1933 to serve the patriarchal traders and stallholders of western Hong Kong island, had never had a female boss before. Beyond Hang Seng, the wider Hong Kong banking and finance community has traditionally been a boys’ club. Indeed ‘clubability’ has seemed as crucial to advancement as performance in the office. So when Leung was appointed to Hang Seng, local media gushed about her smashing through the proverbial glass ceiling.


I never wake up in the morning, go in to the office thinking: ‘I’m a female executive’. I think: ‘I am a capable executive going into work'
 - Louisa Cheang, Hang Seng Bank

A decade on, Leung appears less an outlier than a Hong Kong trailblazer. With the appointment of another HSBC long-termer, Louisa Cheang, in 2017, Hang Seng Bank has its third female chief executive in succession, including Rose Lee’s five years in the chair between 2012 and 2017. Leung went on to be a director – at the time, the only female one – of HKEx, which owns the territory’s stock exchange. Today, the exchange is chaired by Laura Cha.

“I never wake up in the morning, go in to the office thinking: ‘I’m a female executive’,” Cheang tells Asiamoney. “I think: ‘I am a capable executive going into work’.”

Hang Seng has made efforts to the balance the gender of its workforce.

“Meritocracy has to be the key, but you also need to have the pipeline,” Cheang says.

Hang Seng clearly has developed such a pipeline. Of the 14 executive positions deemed by Hang Seng to be its most senior management, nine are held by females.

“Hang Seng (has) a good track record,” Cheang says. “We have a history, we also base on meritocracy; and then in terms of pipeline, the senior females that come through is a decent number. People have the environment to be able to groom themselves and have the support system to enable them to work.”

Hang Seng’s performance on her watch only serves to bolster Cheang’s point. Taxed profit rose 21% to HK$24.2 billion ($3.08 billion) in 2018 from the previous year.

Gender equality

Hong Kong has not been without its powerful women, particularly in politics and public life. Beijing’s current chief executive in Hong Kong is Carrie Lam, whose rule came under pressure as anti-extradition protests paralyzed Hong Kong in June.

Anson Chan was the colony’s effective day-to-day leader under Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, and politicians such as democracy advocates Christine Loh and Emily Lau have often faced off against the pro-Beijing Regina Ip, Maria Tam and Rita Fan.

Hang Seng’s Cheang also nurtured ambitions to be a politician: she graduated in political science from the University of Hong Kong.

“When I was young, I still had this wishful thinking that perhaps I can do something there,” she says now.

Instead she chose banking, joining American Express in Hong Kong, then Citi, before moving to HSBC and Hang Seng.

Diana Cesar, HSBC_160x186

Diana Cesar, HSBC

But in business, balance in gender and pay is a message that seems to be getting through to Hong Kong’s banking and finance sector. At least 12 banks and finance houses in Hong Kong are run by female executives; Cheang at Hang Seng, Angel Ng at Citi Hong Kong, Diana Cesar at HSBC (replacing Anita Fung), Mary Huen at Standard Chartered, Christine Ip at UOB, Amy Cho at Schroders, Ivy Au Yeung at ANZ, Amy Lo at UBS (who took over from Kathryn Shih) and Geraldine Buckingham at BlackRock Asia Pacific.

At Bank of China’s Hong Kong offshoot, Ann Yun Chi and Wang Qi are deputy chief executives.

In cards, Maaike Steinebach helms Visa’s operation in Asia from Hong Kong, and Helena Chen is MasterCard’s Hong Kong head for greater China. Then there’s Alibaba co-founder Lucy Peng and JPMorgan duo vice-chair Jing Ulrich and Kam Shing Kwang, its private banking boss. And Catherine Leung was a JPMorgan Securities’ managing director before she was charged by Hong Kong’s Independent Commission against Corruption in May for alleged bribery during a deal she handled in 2010/11.

(Leung was charged individually and JPMorgan told Euromoney, Asiamoney’s sister publication, in May “we strengthened our compliance procedures and controls around hiring and reinforced the high standards of conduct expected of our people.” Leung did not comment.)

Many of the above gather in an 18-strong semi-formal association they call the CE Group. There are two pre-requisites for entry to CE: members must be female, and they must be the chief executive – the CE in the title – at their workplace.

There’s a strong banking orientation to CE Group membership, but the group also includes bosses at insurance houses and the credit card issuers.

Angel Ng, Citi, 160x186
Angel Ng, Citi

“The reason we group ourselves together is that we want to do something to promote gender equality in Hong Kong, especially in the banking and financial industry, but also beyond,” says Citi’s Ng, who runs the education subgroup.

That means that group members such as Ng frequently visit local secondary schools and colleges to reach female business leaders emerging “earlier in the pipeline,” as Ng puts it.

Ng and her fellow chiefs tell students about their career paths and life stories, helping students learn more about what it is like to be a female banker.

This year, Ng has a particularly good story to illustrate that female banking bosses are at least the equal of their male counterparts. Net income at Citi Hong Kong last year, Ng’s first as chief executive, rose 60% to $1.2 billion on revenues that were 14.6% higher at $2.27 billion.

Embracing diversity

From her Hang Seng eyrie, Cheang occasionally pens columns in the local press urging gender balance and diversity in Hong Kong business, arguing that there is no reason why women in Hong Kong cannot combine a career and family.

In May last year, in an article in the city’s main English-language newspaper, the China-owned ‘South China Morning Post’, Cheang wrote that “approaching diversity as simply a box-ticking or external public relations exercise misses the bigger picture. Successful organizations don’t just hire diversely – they use diversity to drive growth. Unleashing the power of a diverse workforce requires an inclusive corporate culture in which employees feel valued, have a sense of personal belonging and are empowered and emboldened to share their ideas, opinions and experiences.”

She cited a recent study by the so-called 30% Group that calculates female board representation among Hang Seng Index (HSI) constituent companies was just 13%, well behind comparative indexed companies in Australia, the US and the UK. Cheang herself is the only chief executive of an HSI constituent.

“For meaningful long-term change, companies must successfully engage the broader community,” Cheang wrote. “Businesses that ignore the diversity of their customer base in developing their products, services, advertising or corporate values may find themselves left behind.”

Cheang reiterates that message in person to Asiamoney: “I think that there is more awareness in the whole world, including Hong Kong as an international centre, to say diversity actually helps business to grow better. You bring in the expertise and the skills of different people of different backgrounds.”

These seem fine words in any corporate context anywhere, but during her discussion with Asiamoney, Cheang reveals that an unstated socio-economic hierarchy in Hong Kong also plays a role.

“For the community in Asia, families support each other within the family, and also, we have Filipino maids,” Cheang says. “In Hong Kong, lifestyle is far more convenient and easy. So I think that social environment enables some of the females to…. also pursue a career. That is quite a good situation that we enjoy in Hong Kong. So you can have your personal life and your career.”

Perhaps the territory’s definition of diversity and equality still needs finessing, even among those who embrace it.