Drop in on a class at one of China’s top MBA programs and you might be surprised to see one group that’s surpassing North American and European classrooms – women.
In 2010, about 43% of students at China’s top six MBA programs – Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, Guang-hua School of Management, Beijing International MBA (BiMBA), Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, Fudan University, China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) – were female, up from just 25% in 2005.
The rise is a substantial achievement, especially when compared to MBA programs in the West, where the percentage of women enrolled in business schools seems to have reached a plateau of around 30%. By comparison, nearly half of the students enrolled in Western medical and law schools are female.
The changing gender dynamic in MBA classrooms is yet another sign that Chinese women are breaking through centuries-old cultural barriers and succeeding in the business world. Nowhere is that revolution more apparent than at multinational corporations operating in China.
“Over 40% of the people in top management positions at my company are women,” said Christina Lee, senior public relations director of Wal-Mart China (WMT.NYSE). Lee is a graduate of BiMBA at Peking University, one of the few business schools in the world with women making up half of its students.
“Other people [at Wal-Mart China] have MBAs; and I know that I wouldn’t be where I am now without my degree in business,” she said.
It’s no secret that earning an MBA can open doors to higher salaries and opportunities to move into senior level positions.It’s easier than ever now to obtain degrees online too. Online masters in finance degrees are popular for advancing business careers. And in China, a variety of cultural factors, career expectations and an ambitious environment are propelling even more female students to make their MBA dreams come true – despite the distinct challenges and family pressures they face along the way.
The combination of rapid economic and social changes, and government support has helped create an encouraging environment for women to pursue their education and business goals. In many ways, Mao Zedong’s proverb, “Women hold up half the sky” still resonates in Chinese society today.
“Few Chinese women, if any, are made to feel guilty for going for an MBA,” said Laurie Underwood, an American who graduated from CEIBS’s MBA program in 2003 and now works as the school’s director of external communications. “In most cases, the family supports [the decision to study an MBA] rather than making the female students feel like they are neglecting their family duties.”
This support not only stems from many Chinese parents’ emphasis on higher education, but also from Chinese women’s more flexible lifestyle compared with their Western counterparts.
Timing, for example, is often an issue for many Western women considering an MBA, as the majority of business schools require work experience of five years or more. While this poses challenges for women who have or are considering starting a family, mothers in China are able to get child care help from other family members. Hiring nannies is also affordable and considered normal.
In addition to government support and wide access to child care, there’s another explanation for women flooding into MBA programs: Hardworking, ambitious and wanting to make a contribution to their family, many Chinese working women simply want to get ahead.
“Getting an MBA will boost my chances of getting promoted or finding a better job,” said Maggie Qian, an MBA student at Fudan. “An MBA degree can really help you climb up the career ladder.”
Two steps back?
While Chinese women have increased their presence in business schools, there has been some chauvinistic backlash against educated females who are single and haven’t started families.
A widespread joke circulating on BBS (Bulletin Board System) sites and online forums in China, for instance, calls women with PhDs “a different species.” The gag implies a similar insult to other highly educated Chinese females as well.
The negative image is dissuading some from pursuing their graduate education goals. Zhu Shanshan, a high school teacher in Chengdu, is one such example. Zhu said she wants to apply for a master’s degree in order to develop her career further, but her family isn’t thrilled about the idea.
“My parents keep telling me to put off my plans indefinitely because they know a graduate degree will limit my options when it comes to getting married,” Zhu said.
Zhu and her parents’ fears aren’t unfounded. A recent phenomenon cropping up in China’s first-tier cities is a growing group of highly educated, highly paid women who are still unmarried in their mid-30s and older. They are referred to as shengnü, or “leftover women.”
“I’d say it’s definitely harder to find a boyfriend or husband because I’ve got an MBA,” said Zhang Hui, who graduated from CEIBS’s MBA program and is now a senior manager at a multinational firm in Shanghai.
Married or not, female MBA graduates will continue to be a major force in the Chinese business world. The country’s shift toward a service-based economy means there will be a greater need for qualified and diverse managers.
“China will need at least 75,000 MBA-holders who speak at least one foreign language over the next decade,” said Hao Hongrui, an analyst at DHD Consulting, an education consultancy based in Beijing. “And over the next 40 years, [management] demand will increase even more dramatically as China becomes the largest economy in the world.”
This deficit of business leaders is already apparent in sectors like the retail goods industry. Having more female business leaders armed with MBA degrees will help such sectors cater to female consumers.
“Around 80% of our customers are women, so it makes sense to have more females on staff,” Wal-Mart China’s Lee said. “We’re actively looking to hire more women for decision-making positions.”