#IWD2021: Women in Hong Kong Building a Better Future for Asia – Tracy Wong Harris, Standard Chartered

March 9, 2021

As a business and finance hub, Hong Kong is also becoming an important center for talented individuals who are dedicating their careers to sustainability, an agenda that is becoming increasingly critical to business success. Sustainability as an industry has attracted more women than many others, and the sector in Hong Kong is no exception. To celebrate #IWD2021, IFC on March 8 launched a series of interviews with women in the Fragrant Harbour who are championing the sustainability agenda in Asia. 

Our next interview is with Tracy Wong Harris, Head of Sustainable Finance for Greater China and North Asia at Standard Chartered and the Deputy Secretary General of the Hong Kong Green Finance Association. Prior to joining Standard Chartered, Tracy specialized in fixed income and complex structured products for banks including JPMorgan, Mizuho International, Barclays Capital and BNP Paribas in London and Hong Kong.

How would you describe your work?

I run Standard Chartered’s sustainable finance business in Greater China and North Asia, helping our clients to be more sustainable and more aligned with the Paris Agreement. I am also the Deputy Secretary General for the Hong Kong Green Finance Association. 

From a sustainability standpoint, what are the three biggest challenges facing your clients?

One of the key challenges in sustainability is changing peoples’ mindsets, and to move them from doing business in a traditional way to a sustainable way.

The second challenge is looking at the regulatory space. How do we upgrade policies and regulations to truly have an impact on climate change in the financial system? Changing policy and regulation is one of the most time-consuming things that you can do, but then it’s also the most impactful and systematic.

And then finally how do we align businesses with the Paris Agreement? to achieve this requires getting two very different sets of people to work together, those in the environmental sector and those in the financial sector, because we need capital to innovate in order to make the world more sustainable. These two groups don’t talk the same language. 

 What are the biggest challenges facing women working in banking?

How long do you have? You’ll hear the same thing from all women. For me personally, most of my career has been in banking, especially in the corporate environment, which is male dominated. I find it gets more challenging the higher you climb up the ladder. I often felt the need to find ways of getting into the gentlemen’s club. That gentleman’s club still exists. There’s always the feeling that we as women must work twice as hard to prove ourselves and for our voices to be heard. I think that is inherent for all women in the corporate environment.

And there’s often the feeling that women have to work twice as hard and are more effective and more impactful. However, unfortunately women not getting equal pay is still common in the banking industry.

 What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome in your career?

My career started in London and I moved back home to Hong Kong. One wakeup call was when I first moved back to Hong Kong. The culture, being an Asian woman and not acting in an Asian woman way, made it really hard to integrate into the corporate environment in Asia. I grew up in Hong Kong and I moved to the U.K. when I was young, so I’ve been educated and speak in quite a Western style. I’m quite vocal. That makes me very different to a traditional Asian woman, per se. I look Asian, so the expectation of me is that I will act in a certain way. But I don’t. So that is one of the biggest challenges I’ve had my whole career.

The second one was going back to work after maternity leave. I don’t think any women should go through what I went through. I rushed back to work with a young kid and I really felt like I had to catch up and work at the same speed as before, and I just ended up working four times as hard. I found myself working late, coming to the office at the weekend with my child, breastfeeding in the office. Just non-stop working, trying to catch up and at the same time learning to be a new mother and proving to myself that being a mother won’t impact my work. I went through hell during my first year back. I felt I didn’t have enough hours to do two important jobs, my career and being a mother.

 What needs to be done to make the industry more inclusive of women?

From a corporate standpoint, it must be changed from the top down. Companies need to be able to provide equal opportunities for women to climb the ladder the same way men do. We’re not asking for more, we’re asking for equal. Companies also need to educate their staff in unconscious bias.

Also, the gender gap in pay needs to be narrowed or eliminated, since pay is a number you can control. Then there’s the people around you. Most banks have women’s networks, but I find it very effective when you have male champions for women. Because a woman fighting for a woman is less effective than a man saying, “We realize the problem, and we need to be equal.”

When you were young, what did you think about women’s leadership and women’s empowerment? How have your views changed? 

It’s changed dramatically, because when you’re young you’re not aware of any of these things. Its only when you’re growing up and climbing the corporate ladder that you find the glass ceiling. Once you encounter those negative experiences, you realize how important it is to empower and help women. 

What advice would you give other women looking to forge a similar career path? 

When I look back on how I went back to work after maternity leave, a lot of that was driven from the inside. Who asked you to go and work at the weekend? Who asked you to work until midnight and struggle when your child is sick, and you still bring your child to work because you need to breastfeed? I wouldn’t recommend any woman to go through that. The important thing is to voice that out. Only if you voice it out do you have a chance to get help. Talk to your senior manager. Talk to your peers. There are many people around you that can help. Don’t keep it all in and struggle by yourself.