The perceived power of Chinese businesswomen attracts much media attention. Half of the world’s 14 self-made female billionaires are Chinese, according to the 2010 Forbes rich list. These include Wu Yajun, chief executive of Longfor Properties, Tibetan medicine entrepreneur Lei Jufang, and Yan Cheung, a paper recycling tycoon.
This oft-cited statistic is as misleading as it is impressive. While these women should be applauded, their success has come in spite of considerable obstacles. The playing field is not level and gender imbalances are still rife in the workplace. The average monthly salary of a female holding a graduate degree, for example, is US$554 compared to US$678 for men.
The New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP) argued in a report published in March that China should turn to its pool of highly-qualified women to solve its talent crunch. About 40% of employers in China have difficulties finding the right talent to fill openings, according to a 2010 survey by Manpower, a human resources firm.
Maximizing the potential of female professionals could be the answer: While just over one-third of all college-educated women in the US describe themselves as “very ambitious,” the CWLP survey found that in China this figure is closer to two-thirds.
Furthermore, 76% of Chinese women aim to hold top corporate jobs, compared to just 52% of American women. With females accounting for nearly 40% of the student population at top-ranked MBA programs in China, these women appear to be seizing the initiative.
Explanations of this phenomenon are plentiful: the country’s one-child policy has encouraged families to focus their attention and resources on their only offspring, regardless of gender; Communism has helped foster an attitude that women can do whatever men can do; and working mothers receive childcare support, either from family members or nannies whose salaries fall within the purchasing power of many couples.
However, for every report that champions the rise of Chinese businesswomen, there is another that highlights gender inequality in a country where tradition still dictates that it is a woman’s “duty from heaven” to take care of her family.
According to a 2009 study of 3,000 women by the Center for Women’s Law and Legal Services of Peking University, more than one-third of respondents believe that male employees are promoted more often than women. About 28% of respondents said employers set different criteria in recruitment and women have to outshine their male peers in interviews to get the same job.
Once a woman enters the workforce, things may not get much easier. A quarter of the women surveyed by Peking University said they were forced to sign labor contracts containing clauses that forbid them from marrying or getting pregnant in a set period of time. More than 20% said employers cut the salaries of women who become pregnant and gave birth. This is in spite of China’s laws which dictate that women may take maternity leave for at least 90 days.
The ambition of Chinese females and success stories should certainly be used to inspire younger generations. But the country’s corporations and policymakers shouldn’t kid themselves that gender is no longer an issue in the workplace.