Before the blogger’s trembling feet lies a lethal minefield. I did not intend to write about the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission and a startlingly ill-chosen address at an International Women’s Day event.

But we have now been treated to an entertaining piece of self-flagellation by the SCMPost, which published a provocative piece on the subject of women’s dress choices and felt obliged not only to withdraw and obliterate it (too late – on the internet your blunders go on for ever) but also to provide a cringe-worthy explanation. This included the astonishing announcement that its “editorial and company values”, include “We welcome diverse views and never shy away from controversial issues.”

This will be news to the many former Post columnists in Hong Kong.

South China Morning Post headquarters. Photo: Exploringlife via Wikimedia Commons.

So to work. By sheer coincidence I have been reading a book called “Singled Out”, by a lady previously unknown to me, Virginia Nicholson. This is not so much a history book as the sort of thing you can write after you have researched a television programme. Which doesn’t make it any less interesting.

Ms Nicholson’s topic is a sociological by-product of the First World War. Britain suffered no invasion or air raids worth speaking of, so the three-quarters of a million or so people killed, and the roughly equal number so seriously wounded as to carry the effects with them for the rest of their – probably short – lives, were concentrated in one age group. And they were, overwhelmingly, men.

The effect of this on the surviving women was, by the standards of the time, devastating. One of Ms Nicholson’s interviewees recalls the headmistress of a girls’ secondary school in Bournemouth addressing the sixth form in 1917: “I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can hope to marry… It is a statistical fact. Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed.”

Singled Out, by Virginia Nicholson.

By 1921 this had been confirmed by the official census, leading to newspaper headlines referring to “2 million surplus women.” Some writers saw this as a threat. The Daily Mail – even in those days staking out the low ground of journalism – said the “superfluous women are a disaster to the human race.”

It was not, though, a disaster for those who thought women should have choices rather than being condemned, as they had traditionally been, to marriage at all costs and in all circumstances. With so many “surplus” women it was inevitable that many of them would seek other outlets, and at least some of the predictable opposition was muted by the realisation that the answer to the question “Why don’t you get married?” was probably lying under a headstone in Flanders.

The upshot of this was a widespread smashing of barriers. In the two decades between the wars women became engineers, scientists, stockbrokers, university teachers, barristers, archaeologists, and many other things which they had never explored before.

This was not to every man’s taste, of course. At a safe distance one can be charmed by the story of the university lecturer who insisted that women students should sit behind the podium so that he could not see them. But this, along with the vote, was the first Great Leap Forward, at least in the UK.

Women at work during the First World War.

The second one I was actually around for. When I was very small my mother took the view that the way to keep small boys out of mischief was to teach them useful things, so I was instructed – with various degrees of success – in all the varieties of housework.

In those days this was done with very few mechanical aids, none of which were electric. Much of it was very time-consuming. So I did the daily stuff, lay and light fire, deal with resulting layers of dust, shopping – which involved a daily visit to some or all of the fresh food specialists who provided meat, fish, vegetables and bread – make beds, (the duvet had not been discovered) beat carpets and so on. Washing was traditionally done on Monday and hung in the garden. Other more occasional items included darning socks (at which I was not good) and making the Christmas pudding, which for some reason was done in September so that the pudding could meditate on its coming fate for three months, preserved from rot by the copious quantities of booze which were part of the recipe.

The unmistakable effect of all this work was that unless you could afford servants being a housewife was virtually a full-time job. This gradually changed as many of the jobs were mechanised and in due course my mother happily returned to the world of work, liberated by the fridge, the Hoover, the washing machine, the electric fire and the supermarket.

This brings me to the EOC head, Professor Alfred Chan Cheung-ming and his speech on International Women’s Day. In case you were wondering, Chan is a professor of social gerontology (whatever that is) at Lingnan University.

The professor said that women have two possible careers in Hong Kong, in the workplace or at home. I wouldn’t dispute the truth of that, but a prudent speaker would at this point be aware that he was playing with fire.

Professor Chan proceeded to ignite himself. Men did not treat women equally in the workplace (which could charitably be taken as a complaint) but women were not concerned about equal pay (cue sirens). He went on with the point that elderly people tend to be cared for by women, because they are more attentive, and he expected to be cared for by his daughter, not his son, because “men need to work”.

Alfred Chan. File photo:

Seven women’s groups promptly started a petition calling for Prof Chan to be fired. There is certainly something to be said for the idea that the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission should be at the forefront of thinking on the matter of gender equality, rather than merely describing it, even if we acquit him of encouraging prejudice.

I suppose there may have been a respectable point buried in the speech somewhere. It is true that prejudices endure, and not all of them unambiguously favour men. A married woman with no job is a homemaker. A married man with no job is unemployed. But this hardly qualifies as a suitable theme for International Women’s Day. It would be interesting to know what Prof Chan’s daughter thinks of the idea that she is going to be a geriatric nurse when he needs one. Surely the lady has plans of her own?

The piece in the Post by Mike Rowse (formerly of HKinvest, Harbourfest etc) was I fear a deliberate provocation. Mr Rowse was perfectly well aware that it would go down very badly with some people. The idea of the piece was to praise ladies whose cold-weather clothes choices allow Mr Rowse to admire their legs. I am not sure what the Post’s apologists mean by “objectification”, but it appears to be what happens every Sunday in the more fashion-orientated parts of the Magazine section, where the female clotheshorse of the weekend is referred to in captions simply as “model”.

Evidently the Post got a lot of complaints about Mr Rowse and collapsed in a heap. This did not happen on other occasions when the Post got a lot of complaints. Some collapses come easier than others.

Hong Kong is not the only place where people get into this sort of trouble. I remember the President of Harvard being unseated because of some rather technical statistical observations about the dearth of women in science. This was an affront to his staff because it did not repeat the obvious truth of the matter, which was that the scarcity was due to rampant discrimination by male pig scientists.

Then there was the Home Secretary in the UK who was propelled from office after making the rather obvious point that some rapes were more serious than others and this might explain some of the observed variation in sentences.

Mike Rowse. Photo: Wikicommons/SCMP screenshot.

What these events have in common is a preoccupation with words rather than actions. One American writer recently complained that this seemed to be a matter of replacement rather than addition – that people of a progressive disposition spend time eagerly policing the public discussion which might more usefully be spent on useful political work. Or to put it another way, if half of the energy spent on “denying platforms” had been spent on denying Donald Trump…

Well perhaps that is an American problem. What bothers me is the creeping encroachment on the borders of what we used to call free speech. Noam Chomsky has said that “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” And if Chomsky is too subversive for your taste his remark is a near-paraphrase of the US Supreme Court judge who stressed the importance of “not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Clearly by these standards calling for the suppression of a speech or the firing of its author because they do not reach the highest standards of inter-gender fairness and impartiality is an over-reaction.

We can all see that freedom of speech is diminished when some bandit chief in Beijing announces that it does not include the freedom to discuss independence. No doubt the freedom to discuss the attractions of the miniskirt to elderly men is not as important as the freedom to discuss independence. But it is the same freedom, and those who attack it do the same injury.

And the injury is not just theoretical. It has become very difficult to discuss some issues. Here are two which I suggest columnists should avoid unless they are, like me, safely retired and writing for pleasure. The first one is, does the disadvantage attached to being a woman as such still need the attention which it rightly attracted when society’s norm for the female sex ran mostly to “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen?”

We have woman prime ministers, a woman Chancellor of Germany, we have woman presidents, or had until two of them came unstuck recently. A majority of Americans voted for a woman president, though that was not what they got. Then there is the looming prospect of Carrie Lam…

Carrie Lam at the chief executive election TV debate. Photo: TVB screenshot.

This is not to say, of course, that the playing field is entirely level.

I was personally rather shocked by the bias against women academics, or at least the more feisty ones, which lurks in Hong Kong universities; in newspapers, where everyone’s work can be seen by everyone else, people are taken on their merits, at least in the humble strata where I worked. The main complaint about what 19th century liberals called “a career open to the talents” now seems to centre on the shortage of women in company boardrooms. Well if you look at the top of organisations what you see reflects decisions made 30 years ago, when things were perhaps a bit different.

But it is surely too simplistic to say that since 50 per cent of the population is female, any employment area with a lower figure is a festering hotbed of discrimination. There may be some jobs which appeal more to men than to women. Women may rightly feel that there is not a lot to be said for a career in the business world, which is in Nassim Taleb’s memorable summary “inelegant, dull, pompous, greedy, unintellectual, selfish and boring.”

I am not trying to persuade you that the time has come to stop worrying about prejudice against women in appointments of various kinds. What I urge you to worry about is that when the time does come it will be very difficult for anyone to say so. And this has costs. Most people only have so much time and energy to spend worrying about social issues and what is spent on one topic is not available for another.

Let us take another potential problem. In the days when protesting women flung themselves under racehorses and chained themselves to the Downing Street railings it was clear that the many egregious injustices inflicted on women were man-made in the most literal sense of the word. Arguments about “women’s nature” were clearly spurious then and there is a curious antiquarian whiff to Prof Chan’s assertion that women are more suited to caring activities because they are “more attentive”.

Still, as equality marches forward and science increases its understanding of human nature, we can expect to find some differences, possibly quite trivial, which are inherent in the physiological structures of the two genders. The man or woman who makes this discovery will I fear be deterred from announcing it by the near-certainty of a storm of abuse. In modern societies there are advantages to being an oppressed minority and they will not be relinquished lightly.

File photo: GovHK.

Now it will be said in defence of the critics of Prof Chan that they are not seeking to suppress his opinions, they just think that his opinions are incompatible with his job as the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission. And we can go along with that, while wondering if the same people would have said the same things had his tactless observations related to, say, Pakistanis.

Mr Rowse is a more difficult case in some ways, because he was obviously enjoying the thrill of provocation. It’s like those young people who wave the colonial flag at demonstrations, not because they support colonialism but because the flag annoys people they don’t like.

I would not have written what Mr Rowse wrote but defenders of freedom of speech cannot pick and choose. Mr Rowse’s opinion was legal and honest. The SCMPost is free, if it wishes, to dispense with his services to avoid further embarrassment. But trying to delete the piece retrospectively protects one “value” at the expense of another. For years sundry Post columnists have been telling us that there is no self-censorship in Hong Kong. Well there is now.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.