Inspirational Woman Interview: Su-Mei Thompson

Su-Mei Thompson is the CEO of The Women’s Foundation (TWFHK), a non-governmental organization that aims to promote the full and equal participation of women and girls in all aspects of Hong Kong society. At TWFHK, Su-Mei oversees strategic planning, donor relations, grants and programs, government relations and community outreach. Moreover, Su-Mei is the Founder of the 30% Club HK, a group of chairmen and CEO leaders who are committed to bringing more women onto corporate boards. Su-Mei started her career at Linklaters as a corporate finance associate while also serving as a lecturer and tutor in law at Kings College, London. She went on to hold senior management positions at The Walt Disney Company, the Financial Times and Christie’s in Asia. In addition to running The Women’s Foundation, Su-Mei is a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission of Hong Kong, serves on the board of Opera HK and is a council member of The Cheltenham Ladies College. Su-Mei holds law degrees from Cambridge and Oxford and an MBA from IMD where she was the first woman to graduate on the Dean’s list.

Can you tell us about some of TWFHK’s signature programs?

Su-Mei Thompson: Over the past 8 years, TWF has touched the lives of over 15,000 local teen girls and boys, parents and teachers through our TEEN Gender Awareness and Life Skills programs.  Through the 800 workshops TWF organizes every year, it is equipping local youth with a positive mind set and skills that will better prepare them for the future. We also have a Girls Go Tech Program that is providing free coding and digital literacy workshops to almost 500 girls and 400 teachers from 9 schools in Hong Kong’s poorest districts. Four years ago, TWF launched the TWF Cambridge Scholarship Scheme which supports talented and deserving Hong Kong students to pursue the M Phil in Gender Studies at Cambridge.

  • Our Financial Literacy & Employability Program has empowered hundreds of marginalized women to achieve a better quality of life for themselves and their families and helped with capacity building at more than a dozen grassroots NGOs.
  • In terms of programs for professional women, TWF’s best in class Mentoring Program has placed nearly 800 professional women in fulfilling mentoring relationships. We are currently working in partnership with PwC on Chief Executive Women HK – a group of HK female banking chiefs – on a pilot survey of female representation in the financial services industry in Hong Kong.
  • Our efforts to engage men include launching the 30% Club of chairmen and CEOs who are championing more women on boards, and TWF’s Male Allies cohort of some 30 male leaders who are committed to achieving gender equality in their organisations and in the broader community.
  • On the research front, our efforts have generated studies on the status of women and girls in Hong Kong, female entrepreneurship in Hong Kong and most recently, why girls are not selecting STEM subjects. TWF has also published best practice guides on effective women’s networks, gender inclusive mobility programs and return to work initiatives – and coming soon: success markers for effective unconscious bias strategies.
  • Finally, in terms of public engagement, we launched ‘She Objects’, the documentary TWF released last year which spotlights gender stereotyping by the media has been the subject of over 50 community screenings. It was part of the Official Selection at Sundance HK last year and will be shown at this year’s Nice International Film Festival and Lucerne Film Festival.

Can you share your visions for the #MyRealCareerLine campaign? How can individuals get involved?

Su-Mei Thompson: #MyRealCareerLine campaign celebrates the talent, capabilities and other drivers behind a woman’s ‘real career line’ while challenging the use of the term for career line in Cantonese, 事業線, to refer interchangeably to a woman’s cleavage. The phrase 事業線 is just one form of casual sexism found in everyday language and print and online media that legitimizes the objectification of women and in the process, diminishes a woman’s professional achievements by making it all about her appearance.

There are a few ways your readers can get involved:

  • Share the campaign video from TWF’s Facebook page on your own Facebook page with a personal caption like this one: “Saying no to casual sexism in the workplace and the use of 事業線! Support TWF’s brilliant new campaign #我真正的事業線 #MyRealCareerLine.”  (Please remember to tag The Women’s Foundation too.)
  • Go to www.careerline.hk and use the online tool to upload your photo plus a message about what underlies your real career success. It would be great if you can also post this to Facebook or Instagram and invite your friends to like your post!
  • Create your own supporting video like the examples on our website and post it on Facebook or Instagram.

In your opinion, what are the main barriers to workplace gender equality?

Su-Mei Thompson: In Asia, women are less likely than men to be promoted up through the organisation and employers are least likely, compared with other regions, to be focused on many of the drivers of gender diversity that we know are needed to move the needle like the engagement of middle managers and male employees, the adoption of rigorous pay equity processes or the review of performance ratings by gender to look for unconscious bias or institutionalized barriers.

Additionally, the fact that women continue to disproportionately shoulder childcare and elderly care responsibilities is also contributing to the significant fall-off in female representation at senior levels. In Hong Kong, 31% of women cited caring for family members as the primary reason they dropped out of the workforce, and we are no exception to the region. Upon getting married, 22% of South Korean women drop out of the workforce and Japan has a whopping 70% of women who cite family reasons for why they left the workforce. At work, companies still tend to expect and reward long hours in the office — employees who work part time or ask to work remotely tend to be regarded as less committed and less ambitious. These attitudes are changing in the West but Asians are definitely lagging behind in terms of entrenched cultural attitudes to the role of women and men as carers and earners.

TWFHK has been very successful under your leadership. In your view, what are some of the main drivers for that success?

Su-Mei Thompson: Our challenges are the same that many NGOs face.

First and foremost, it may sound trite and obvious but I think it is critically important for any charitable organisation and the people involved to have a mission and to have the passion to achieve that mission or die trying. And not just any mission or vision but the biggest and boldest vision possible.

Secondly, I think it is important to have a constant sense of urgency. That sense of urgency gives the organisation energy and a unifying sense of purpose among the team. But there is a difference between urgency and haste and you want to get the balance right and act with urgency but not in haste because when you are hasty, you are going to make wrong decisions.

Thirdly, it’s important to bear in mind that just because you can do everything doesn’t mean you should.

Four, hire the best people for the job and not just for the front line roles but for all functions. Particularly for non-profits this is tricky – most non-profits feel they need to keep their admin costs as low as possible instead of establishing the organisational capacity necessary to achieve their aspirations effectively and efficiently. In any kind of successful organisation and specifically for an NGO, you need a combination of leadership and management capabilities, you need people who are good at program execution and at fundraising, but you also need strong PR and marketing, a strong finance and admin function, and very good IT.

And last but not least, it’s essential to be strategic rather than transactional. It is often just as time consuming and costly to work on a project that will directly benefit only a small group of people as it is to work on something that will have a sustainable impact over generations.

You also founded the 30% Club HK – what inspired you to do this and can you tell us more about it?

Su-Mei Thompson: The objectives of the 30% Club are to raise awareness of the benefits of gender diversity, inspire debate and discussion, and encourage and support initiatives to build the pipeline of women in executive and non-executive roles, with the overall aim of moving the needle on the current rather depressing position where women are significantly under-represented on boards.

We decided to start a 30% Club chapter in Hong Kong because women make up just 13.1% of all directors of listed issuers in Hong Kong and the pace of change with regards to increasing this percentage has been glacial.

Addressing the imbalance is important, not just because of the principles of fairness and equal opportunity but also because it’s bad business. Numerous studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between gender diversity on boards and more effective decision making, stronger corporate governance and companies being better able to target female consumers.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Su-Mei Thompson: I know it sounds corny but I would have to point to my mother who had and still has, one of the keenest legal brains of anyone I’ve known. At a time when many women with her social background didn’t work, she was General Counsel of a leading Malaysian development bank, working on some of the biggest infrastructure projects that brought Malaysia into the 21st century. Considering my grandfather was only a headmaster in a small town in Malaysia and money was tight, she was lucky to have the opportunity to read law in England and to qualify as a barrister. More than anyone else, she has encouraged me to make the most of opportunities that God provides and to use my education to make a difference in the lives of others.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to women’s issues and business leadership?

Su-Mei Thompson: I think it’s possible to draw inspiration from almost everywhere. Sheryl Sandberg is an obvious role model – I especially love the way her book Lean In restates the issues women face using contemporary language that resonates with women today.  On a different note, Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal is an incredible read for anyone who wants to be better prepared for coping with the mortality of your loved ones and yourself. And my 9 year old daughter Allegra and I are currently obsessed with the animated movie Sing and the fantastically evocative vignettes of real life characters that the brilliant line up of different animals portray. From Mr Moon the koala impresario lead to Rosita the porcine housewife and mama figure to Meena the under-confident teenage elephant, I love the way they all discover something about themselves, change and grow during the course of the film. Allegra says she relates most to Meena whereas I want to be Gunther – he may not show as much growth as the other characters but he definitely has the most fun!

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