Financial Post (03/17/14) by Dan Ovsey

Helen Wong, president, CEO and deputy board chair of HSBC Bank China, became the newest board member of HSBC Bank Canada in December 2013, bringing that board’s ratio of women to men to 50:50. That’s a fairly unusual statistic in a country where only 6% of FP500 boards are made up of more than 40% women. But the gender balance at HSBC isn’t exclusive to Canada. Even in China, women make up 40% of senior management and 73% of the company’s overall workforce. The way Ms. Wong tells it, gender was never really a consideration for her as she rose through the company’s ranks over more than 20 years. She had a lot more pressing things on her mind — like managing HSBC’s operations in China’s highly regulated and often bureaucratic banking industry, and seeing it through breakneck-speed expansion between 2007 and 2009. She recently spoke with FP’s Dan Ovsey about coming up in China, gender balances, managing operations and relationships on both sides of the Pacific and the China-Canada connection. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Q: When you joined HSBC in 1992, what was your perspective in terms of how your career would evolve over time?

A: I had actually worked with some other banks in Hong Kong before. At that time I was more of a specialist. In the early 1990s the bond market in Asia was starting to build up. So I had the chance to join HSBC and go straight into syndicated loans and bond transactions.

I thought there would be a lot of opportunities to see and do a lot more and get to know a lot more customers, because it’s a big group and is bound to a have a lot of business I could put my hands on. I continued to do more things and bigger jobs. I never really thought I would be a country manager. I saw myself more as an investment banker, but I guess the group is so big and so consistent in giving opportunities to people who like challenges that I eventually switched departments and took on more of a management role.

I think we’re actually going to have to start to recruit some men

Q: Did you ever feel your career would have limitations because you’re a woman?

A: I actually never felt that. If you are in the general working environment, we have a lot of ladies around. Since the 1990s and onward, more women got senior positions in Hong Kong and China.

I do remember back in the nineties, I somehow was holding a rather senior position for my age, so I was always joking to my parents that at every major meeting I’m the only woman sitting around a group of men. But I never really thought about whether I was disadvantaged. I just thought — when I was sitting in a meeting — that my focus is to prepare for that meeting and then I go in and just contribute (be it with customers, be it with colleagues). I don’t think people speak to me any differently when we’re in a meeting. I see that as just day-in and day-out work. I don’t think I need to change myself at all. And when I’m looking at some sort of employment situation — trying to nominate someone to do a job — gender is never actually in my thought process.

Q: Is there something systematic in place within HSBC China to help women move up the corporate ladder?

A: It’s interesting that you ask about China, because in China the entire financial industry has more women than men.

Q: Even in senior roles?

A: In senior roles it’s actually doing better than a lot of the (other) industries in North America or Europe. If you look at China or Hong Kong, sometimes you find there are not a lot of senior women in top positions — on the board or in the most senior management level (in other industries).

A lot of women, especially in China’s culture, would prefer to spend more time with the family and I think  men still feel they are the bread winners in the family and feel they have to do well in their careers and earn enough money to keep the family well. And if a man earns enough money to keep the family well, the woman might decide to spend more time with the family. That culture is still very much alive in China. So I think that if a woman hasn’t risen to a high position, to a large extent it was because there was a choice made. In China, if a woman is committed to a career, she’s given equal opportunity.

We have a really high percentage of women in our workforce. Even in middle management we now have more women than men at HSBC in China. I think we will lose women along the way because some may say, “I want to be a housewife while my kids are growing up.” But that ratio of women to men is going to increase to the extent that I think we’re actually going to have to start to recruit some men.

Q: How would you say HSBC China has changed since 2007 when foreign banks were first permitted to operate there?

A: I think in terms of changes, we suddenly had to increase our network in China and then we had to employ a lot of people. Between 2007 and 2009 we employed maybe 2,000 more employees — just within two years. That’s a lot of change, because you can’t find enough experienced people in the market so you train them along the way. We started to think a lot about how to bring all these new people up and make them feel good working in a bank; we were able to face those challenges and then we gradually became more geographically diverse, because China is a big country, like Canada. We went through this period of just trying to expand and trying to ensure we met all the regulations. Today we are the largest foreign bank in China, and I believe we are the most respected foreign financial institution in China by both customers and regulators.