The founder of WISE Hong Kong wants women to engage and participate in sports as a means to growing both personally and professionally
Alicia Lui’s mother did not grow up playing sport. But she was determined that things would be different for her daughter and encouraged her to engage and participate in sports. However, it was not always straightforward.
“On one hand, I was encouraged to play sports, but I wasn’t really encouraged to play things like football, because the perception was that it would make me short,” says Lui. “When the school asked me to try out for track and field, my parents thought I’d be too muscular and my thighs would be too manly. And when I wanted to try rugby they said it was too violent and rough and I would hurt myself. So, while they wanted me to play sports, they thought something more feminine would be better.”
So Lui started out with roller skating and figure skating. However, other sports would come later, thanks in part to Lui's education in international schools and overseas, which gave her greater exposure to different sports and influenced her relationship with physical activity.
Sport has remained a constant in Lui’s life, even as she pursued a career in the corporate world, with roles at KPMG, JP Morgan and Accenture in both Hong Kong and Beijing. In 2017 she decided to make sport part of her professional life, launching WISE (Women In Sport Empowered) Hong Kong, which officially became a charity in 2020. Its aim is to empower women and girls, particularly those from underserved communities, through sport and physical activity, and to work towards achieving greater gender equality in the sports industry.
WISE works in a number of ways. The organisation partners with local schools to provide sports programmes and opportunities to girls aged between 12 and 16. This is an age bracket when girls can benefit most from participation in physical activity but is often the time when girls most frequently drop out of sports. Exposure and support can change this. WISE also has a family programme through which it hosts mother and daughter sports days to encourage role modelling.
Additionally, last year, WISE launched its SHE (Sports, Health, Empowerment) programme, a mentoring initiative that pairs young women in tertiary education with working professionals to encourage the use of sports as a tool to support personal and professional development. “We are not saying sports is necessarily going to help you get where you want to be, but there’s a lot about sports in terms of the mindset that can help you in the workplace and with women's health,” says Lui. Below, the founder of WISE shares more of her story in her own words.
Meeting resistance as a woman
Sport was my passion. I had always loved sports—not simply participating, but growing up I was the girl who sat in front of the TV and watched football with my dad. Our talk was about sports. I often thought about transitioning into the sports industry. I had worked in private banking and I thought I could do that for athletes, or I could be a sports agent. But I always met with resistance. Everyone said, “You’re a woman and it will be hard for you to get male clients, as they will never see you in the same way”. At the time, I didn’t have the wherewithal to push through and fight for what I wanted for myself.
Learning to lean in
While I was working in Beijing, the Lean In movement started. It was 2013 and Sheryl Sandberg came to Beijing. I had some friends who wanted to start Lean In Beijing. That was the first time I found myself in a group of women who really talked about the challenges that we faced at home and at work. And no matter how many people criticise the book or what led on from it, for me at the time it was recognition that there were a lot of other women who felt the same way I did and we were in an environment where we could talk about it and support each other. It was an important moment for me, because it was the first time I felt like I wanted to do something. I left Beijing a few years later to pursue my second Masters degree and I was asked what I wanted to do afterwards. It was then that I started thinking about doing more in women’s empowerment and the idea for WISE started formalising.
The importance of sport for women and girls
The skills you learn related to sport are important—such as time management, discipline, the idea of setting goals and achieving what you want—and can be transferred to the business world. Women and girls should play sports because it gives us the tools, the mindset, the language to build our confidence and overcome any self-limiting believes. It helps society see women and girls as being strong to overcome these barriers.
Additionally, the science seems to say that neurologically girls experience a dip in self-confidence when they are in their teens—you can’t avoid it. Whatever the reason for it, sport is one of the simplest interventions because of the neurological connections that physical activity has in building the brain. There is research that says that girls who play sport are less likely to want to change their body image, they feel more confident, are less worried about living up to other people and have a more secure sense of self that they can go and pursue what they want.
What sport means to me
If it wasn’t for sport, I would be a different person. I’m an only child and, for me, sport was the place where I found my friends, where I learned to support other people and where I learned a lot of those social and life skills. And now sports give me a sense of purpose and motivation to continue to advocate for more opportunities and access for other women and girls.
Finding your tribe
My sport is ultimate Frisbee. I was familiar with the sport from college, but I started playing regularly when I moved back to Hong Kong. I had wanted to find a group of friends and I was on the Classifieds pages on AsiaXpat.com and scrolled through all the way from ‘A’ down to ‘U’ where there was an ad for ultimate Frisbee. I decided to check it out and the people were awesome. I think that’s very often how sport is—you find a tribe, and that’s why you stay with a sport.
Expanding meaning and minds
If you have exposure to a Western mindset, it’s quite normal to play sports. But if you grow up in Hong Kong, there’s still a lot of, “Don’t get too tanned”, and “Don’t play such a rough sport” and “Play sport but also study hard”. And the word “sport” doesn’t always have the most positive connotations. When people think of sport, they think of competition and aggression, and sometimes that turns people away. But in the past few years, the word sport has become broader—it’s not just team sports or individual sports. You are now incorporating the idea of movement and physical activity. And, fundamentally, people understand that sport is good for your health.
What does it mean for women to be sporty?
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard women describe themselves as “not sporty”. I started hearing it so much, that I started thinking about what it means to be sporty. Why do so many of us describe ourselves as “not sporty”? I think one of the reasons is due to stereotyping and the way women and girls think you need to be in order to play certain sports. For example, you might think of a rugby player typically being broad or wide; a ballet dancer or gymnast as being slim and light; a swimmer as being tall and broad-shouldered. I think it’s because of these misconceptions around how you physically need to be in order to perform in a certain sport that leads women to describe themselves as “not sporty”. But there are so many different sports out there. This inspired me to write a book, Sporty Girl Journals, to address what it means to be sporty and to help young girls realise that they don’t have to be a certain mould to be sporty. That’s also our belief at WISE—we don’t focus on one type of sport. For us it’s really important to expose participants to different sports to help women and girls find what they like.
I think parents are starting to understand that children are different and you can’t push everyone in a certain direction. There are different pathways and sport is one to consider. The sports industry has started growing in Hong Kong; people no longer think of sport as just being an athlete or a coach. It’s an industry like any other—you can do marketing, you can be a doctor, a physiotherapist, a scientist—and parents are no longer as afraid of letting their children explore it. Not so long ago, unless your parents were athletes or very progressive, the thinking was that you were an athlete because you were not academically inclined and that the sporting world only offers short careers and unstable jobs. But attitudes are changing. Sport is not just about health and wellbeing. It's a lot of other things. And as Hong Kong athletes continue to get results and the government invests in sports, there’s hope for further change.
Empowering women and girls
WISE is still small. We only hired our first full-time project manager this past year and I still volunteer my time and have always had another job. I don’t think our work will be done in five years. I don’t know whether our work will ever be done. But I hope that we can continue to be an organisation at the forefront of promoting sports and physical activity as a tool to empower women and girls.
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