(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 27 April 2016.)
A funny thing happened recently. The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) secured a provisional District Court judgment on behalf of a male customer against a club that offered gender-based discounts at its ladies’ night events, after the club operator failed to give any notice of opposition.
The equal opportunity idea, when applied to gender, is intended to advance human freedom and personal choice for women against general cultural, economic, social and political constraints. It is outrageous that discounts on ladies’ night could constitute a constraint on either men’s or women’s human freedom or personal choice.
Our modern ideas about women’s rights can be traced to the 18th and 19th centuries, when they emerged alongside the acceptance of liberal republican values.
The first wave of feminist thought led to the successful campaign for women’s voting rights by activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Mary Wollstonecraft.
This was followed by a second wave of feminist writing that stressed the social, economic, and cultural constraints on women.
This new phase of feminism gained particular influence in England and France through the work of such writers as Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, who both urged women to pursue a new cultural liberation that extended beyond the realm of political rights.
In her short book A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf argued that women were restricted in the pursuit of artistic work by lack of money or time away from family obligations. The independent, creative woman needed “a room of one’s own” and some financial autonomy, and she needed to resist the deep cultural message that said “women cannot create as well as men.”
De Beauvoir, in her seminal book The Second Sex (1949), built on the ideas of existential philosophy and stressed that there was no “essence” or “woman’s nature” that set limits to what women might do. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” she wrote, through cultural roles assigned to girls from earliest childhood that denied women any chance for freedom or equality in the reigning structures of marriage, motherhood, and male-female relationships.
De Beauvoir believed the free woman (like the free man) could recognize her social position and claim her freedom as she rejected the ways in which others described her.
Now, let me reel out some statistics to show how Hong Kong women’s lot has improved in measurable dimensions.
In 1976, 3.9% of men and 2.6% of women aged 20 to 29 had university degree education; by 2011, the corresponding figures were 32.5% for men and 38.1% for women. In 1976, 97% of men and 65% of women aged 20 to 29 were working in the labor force; by 2011, the corresponding figures were 92% for men and 87% for women.
Women’s earnings also rose faster than men’s from 1976 to 2015 in every percentile of the earnings distribution, ranging from 0.4% per annum at the lowest 10th-percentile to 0.6% per annum at the highest 90th-percentile (see Figure 1).
If we look at differences in the hourly wage rate between single men and women, holding constant years of schooling and age, the progress of women is equally impressive. From 1985 to 2000, women’s wage rates were 4% lower than men’s, but from 2001 to 2015, they were 1.2% higher.
These spectacular achievements occurred at a time of a large inflow of less-educated women through cross-border marriages. So if we compared local women against local men, the improvement in the economic status of women would be even more pronounced.
Women in Hong Kong today are indeed the proud heirs of Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir. I would have thought this is a cause for celebration, so in addition to discounted drinks on ladies’ night perhaps free drinks for women on the house every 8th of March. Boys you better work harder!