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How Asia’s finance industry is leading the fight for LGBTIQ rights

December 13, 2017

The LGBTIQ social movement in the U.S. originated from the fearless voices of grassroots activists and came to a fever pitch during the Stonewall riots in 1969, when gay men and women, drag queens and transgender people, together, fended off police officers raiding their safe space. Much has changed since, especially in big metropolitan cities like Hong Kong where the power to influence social change has begun shifting from grassroots activists to corporate initiatives mostly backed by international financial institutions.

“Finance and banking, after all, is a major industry in Hong Kong,” says James Tong, the openly gay Managing Director and Regional Head of Global Shipping & Logistics for Citi. “It’s a capitalist society and the people who bring in the dough have a say in things.”

I know what you’re thinking. The finance industry is not typically known for diversity and inclusion, and top finance executives still tend to be white, straight and male – even in Hong Kong – considering the ratio of expats to those in top positions. Tong, however, believes things are changing.

I met with him at Clifford Chance law firm’s 10th annual Pride Art Exhibition, which is packed with top-level LGBTIQ corporate executives (aka power gays) and their allies celebrating queer art and emerging queer artists. “You see, Hong Kong is catching up quickly to cities like New York,” he says. “We are willing to talk about the issues and how sexual orientation should be a non-issue. At the end of the day, the most important thing for a company is to find talent, the crème de la crème, regardless of age, gender, religion, race and sexual orientation. Finance should only be conservative in the sense that people are concerned about the bottom line and driving profit.”

Tong would be the guy who knows how the perception of homosexuality in the finance sector has evolved, having been in it for the past 21 years. “I remember after returning from my studies in Australia I got my first job and my boss told me that coming out might affect my career.” He continues: “But since then, that was the only incident. I perform well at my job, I’m visible and out, and when I had a partner, I would not hesitate to bring him to corporate events.”

For the past few years, major banks and corporations have taken a stand for LGBTIQ rights. HSBC launched the “Celebrate Pride, Celebrate Unity” campaign, which saw their iconic lions, Stephen and Stitt, painted in rainbow colors. And more recently, Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse along with 10 other financial companies are supporting an expat lesbian couple in a legal battle against the Hong Kong government for the recognition of their relationship. Tong and his colleagues have taken other initiatives for the betterment of the LBGTIQ community in the workplace as well, including founding the Citi Pride Network chapter in Hong Kong back in 2014.

The 44-year-old says: “I thought, as an openly gay man in a senior position, it is my responsibility to make sure there is a safe place at Citi for LGBTIQ people and make sure it’s reflected when it comes to hiring. I believe LGBTIQ people often work twice as hard to prove themselves.” Besides the Hong Kong office, Tong is also responsible for being the bridge to management for LGBTIQ colleagues in other Asian countries, some of which where homosexuality is still illegal. “Individuals in these countries might not always want to speak up, so I will help them get what they deserve. Coming out is a very personal matter, and I never encourage people to come out just for the sake of coming out. But when someone is ready, needs advice, someone to rely on, I’m here.”

Workplace culture in Hong Kong and the rest of the world’s major cities are still far from perfect, and Tong acknowledges this and remains cautious. “Just because companies have diversity and inclusion programmes doesn’t mean there won’t be individuals that choose to be ignorant.”

This article was written by Arthur Tam from Forbes and is licensed by Bloomberg.