The stock exchange hosted a seminar earlier this year on the advancement of women in the workplace. Seven weeks later, Laura Cha became its first female chief. She talks to Steven Crane
On a personal level, I find it a great honour to be the first female chair,” says Laura Cha, chairwoman of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX), the operator of the city’s stock and futures markets. “The message has not been lost; a large number of people have noticed.”
In approving Cha’s appointment on April 26, Carrie Lam, herself a trailblazer as the first female Chief Executive of Hong Kong, was putting in place the first woman to chair the bourse since the founding of its forerunner, the Stockbrokers’ Association of Hong Kong, in 1891.
Cha is also the only woman among the chairmen of Hong Kong’s 50 blue-chip firms — a sadly standard figure in a city where the female board representation rate is less than 14 per cent, according to a study by the 30% Club HK, a group of business leaders who are committed to bringing more women into Hong Kong corporate boards.
Women are also quite badly underrepresented in the legislature, numbering just 11 of its 70 members. “That’s not for the want of trying,” says Cha. “I helped the Chief Executive with her transition team. We reached out to a large number women and men who at that stage were reluctant to join the government for one reason or another. It is unfortunate that we don’t have as many women as we would like, but I am sure she will continue her efforts and I will do the same at the exchange.”
While gender diversity is undoubtably good for business—a 2018 study by the Mckinsey global business and economics research institute found a correlation between having a more diverse leadership team and achieving better financial performance—cha modestly states that her gender notwithstanding, “I would hope that my past experience had something to do with the appointment.”
She is, indeed, eminently qualified. Cha has served as a senior official on the HKEX’S regulatory body, the Securities and Futures Commission, and on its counterpart in Mainland China, the China Securities Regulatory Commission. As chairman of Hong Kong’s Financial Services Development Council, she pushed for the introduction of dual-class shares and led efforts to position the city as an offshore centre for trading in yuan. She is also a nonofficial member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council and an independent non-executive director at HSBC Holdings.
Cha, who was elected chairman of the HKEX unopposed, is keen to enhance the competitiveness of the exchange, fend off competition from other overseas exchanges, such as counterparts in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Singapore and the US, and institute reform.
In April, the HKEX announced its biggest reform in decades, allowing biotech firms yet to generate revenue to apply for listings, as well as mainland technology companies seeking secondary listings in Hong Kong.
“The threats and challenges to Hong Kong’s status as an international finance centre from other exchanges, both far and near, are a major concern,” says Cha. “We are in a new economy so some of the rules of the game have changed, and we have just caught up with it with our latest reforms to attract these companies to list in Hong Kong.
“I think, on the whole, one should never be complacent,” she adds. “We have done well in the past but the world is evolving and we need to be up there in front. To the extent that we have lost some time, we need to make up for it. We have to be constantly on the move and on the lookout for opportunities so that we’re in a position to take advantage of them.”
Given that Hong Kong is facing stiff competition from Mainland China and elsewhere, Cha’s appointment comes at a critical time for the HKEX and for Hong Kong itself. Cha agreed to serve a two-year term, which can be renewed twice. Will six years be enough time for her to accomplish her goals? “I will finish my first term before I speak further on that,” she says discreetly.