Inequality Sports women's rights

The Power of Sports: Tackling Gender Stereotypes in Hong Kong

The most recent report of the World Economic Forum paints a rather dim picture of gender inequality worldwide. According to current research, it will take 132 years to close the global gender gap. Alicia Lui from the initiative Women in Sports Empowered Hong Kong (WISE) works with youth to approach this problem in Hong Kong and agreed to share a few valuable insights with Pressenza contributor, Chris Hoellriegl.
Women in Sports Empowered, Hong Kong (Image by WISE website

By Chris Hoellriegl / Pressenza

The most recent report of the World Economic Forum paints a rather dim picture of gender inequality worldwide. According to current research, it will take 132 years to close the global gender gap. While there certainly are significant differences between countries, there remains a lot of potential for improvement in all sectors of society all over the world. The sport industry is certainly no exception. Alicia Lui from the initiative Women in Sports Empowered Hong Kong (WISE) works with youth to approach this problem in Hong Kong and agreed to share a few valuable insights with Pressenza contributor, Chris Hoellriegl.

Chris Hoellriegl: Dear Ms Lui, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview about WISE. In her book Gender and Change in Hong Kong: Globalization, Postcolonialism, and Chinese PatriarchyEliza Lee referred to women in Hong Kong as “superwomen” who are more assertive, career-focused and independent compared to other women all around the world and particularly women in other Southeast Asian countries. Having been empowering girls in Hong Kong since 2017, would you agree with her or say that Hong Kong is still in need of women’s empowerment?

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Alicia Lui: I agree that women in Hong Kong may seem more equal compared to many places worldwide. In fact, in many regards, they are. But, this does not imply that they are equal to men. There are still a lot of things to be done. This particularly includes addressing hidden stereotypes and biases which society may instill in both women and men. Overall, our starting point at WISE is that women are not more equal than in other places around the world. This is particularly true if one considers that every country and culture has its very own gender context.

CH: I could not agree more on that point for similarly “equal” countries such as Germany or the UK. Very often, addressing the problem of gender inequality may also require a context-specific approach. Can you tell us more about the approach which your organization WISE follows to empower women in the context of Hong Kong?

AL: WISE started as a voluntary organization in 2017 with the aim of building a world where women and girls can thrive without limitations. For us, sport plays a key role in this. On the one hand, we aim at harnessing the power of exercise itself to empower women. Besides physical benefits, the main reason to utilize sport is because it functions as a powerful tool to increase self-confidence which is essential for any kind of empowerment.

On the other hand, we also seek to achieve this aim in the sports sector itself by amongst others increasing the participation of women in sports, for instance. In fact, women and girls engage in sports less frequently than men and boys in Hong Kong. For me, that is a shame but in that regard, the sports industry does not differ from any other sector in Hong Kong.

Photo supplied by Alicia Lui

CH: How has this idea emerged? Why sport?

AL: I have always been very interested in sport or women’s empowerment and keen on challenging existing gender stereotypes particularly in sport. I myself have experienced how societal expectations discourage girls from any sports which are considered inappropriate for women because they render their calves too big, for example. However, the idea to do something about that and start an initiative did not arise until I read a research paper by Ernst & Young during my studies in London in 2016. It basically states that many women in top manager positions have a background in sports and that this has accelerated their career substantially by teaching them amongst others teamwork, perseverance and discipline. From this moment on, I knew that I wanted to do something about those gender stereotypes and that I wanted to use sport as a tool because it is very concrete and tangible. There is something powerful about sports: It makes you believe in yourself and this translates into so many other areas of life. It is magical.

CH: That is most certainly true for the right kind of sport. According to Nelson Mandela, it may even have the power to change the world. What exactly is your organization doing to harness this “magic”?

AL: Our organization offers a range of educational workshops in schools which teach on gender-related topics such as, amongst others, body image and menstruation, career and leadership development or learning English through sports. They normally last up to 120 minutes and are led by our volunteers or organizations we partner with. All those workshops incorporate interactive elements such as physical movement or games from a range of different sports including soccer, boxing, yoga or basketball, for instance. Besides sensitizing both boys and girls on gender-related topics and thus challenging existing stereotypes, we also aim at supporting the participants’ physical and mental well-being, educating about why sport matters and connecting that to building a gender-aware community.

CH: WISE started in 2017 as a volunteer initiative and has evolved into an NGO since then. It is thus quite a “new” project. Do you see change in your participants since then? Have you already changed some of those often very deeply ingrained gender stereotypes?

AL: Changing those can only occur over time. However, we have just started and we are additionally operating on a very small scale. For now, it is impossible to claim there has been fundamental change: We are only planting seeds.

When approaching this question, one must furthermore ask oneself the question how to measure improvements correctly as well. There is no absolute definition of empowerment in the first place which applies to every beneficiary equally. We should rather focus on individual improvements in comparison to before joining our sessions. In this regard, I can definitely attest to improved self-confidence and increased awareness on gender-stereotypes in almost all beneficiaries.

CH: Those developments are both necessary to realize your vision and you simply must start somewhere. What are the main challenges you observe when trying to realize your vision?

AL: There are many. However, I will focus on the two most important aspects. First, the attitude of men towards women in sports must change fundamentally. If we are trying to encourage girls to join sports sessions or empower women generally, all of us, regardless of our gender, must want to be part of that conversation. The point here is that it turns out to be harder to break through that mindset of men in society to want to collaborate. However, if we forget about half of the population, sustainable change will not occur. We all have a role to play in that game. That is the reason why we also actively target our sessions at boys, too.

Second, we need to talk less and act more. For me, this implies providing the necessary resources and creating opportunities, for instance. Only then can we really make a change in the way we relate and think about women in sports as well as in society generally. In fact, we have wasted enough valuable time already.

CH: That is a beautiful concluding answer! Thank you very much for your interesting insights about WISE in Hong Kong and all the best for your future work!

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Chris Hoellriegl

Chris is involved in several social initiatives worldwide and loves to write about thought-provoking, inspiring encounters with the most different people all around the world. Read more below.

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