By: Richard King
In doing business in China, I have noticed the increasing number of women who are present at business meetings, not as entrepreneurs but as key members of Chinese management. It is interesting to me that there may be a trend taking place in China that is including more women in management roles in Chinese companies.
Mao Zedong, when he was president of China, uttered the memorable phrase, “Women hold up half the sky”. This may not be entirely the case in the business world, but Chinese women play more prominent roles in starting and running companies than women do in the U.S. and Europe.
According a recent study by the accounting firm, Grant Thornton, women hold 35% of the senior management positions in China compared to 20% in other parts of the world including in the U.S. and Europe. The percentages are also moving in opposite directions with a great proportion of top jobs going to women recently. Women now hold 35% of management jobs in China while women involved in senior management in Europe and the U.S. is down to 24%. It is also interesting to note that women are not dominant just in human resources and accounting as they are many times in the West. Nineteen percent of the women in management in China are serving as CEOs. Also a significant number of partners with private equity firms in China are women. As I mentioned in a previous article, half of the world’s billionaires are from China and 10% of those are women.
It is also important to note that four Chinese business women appeared in the recent Forbes Magazine list of the worlds’ most powerful women. Those women included: Zhang Xin, co-founder and CEO of SOHO China; Yang Mian Mian, President of the Haier Group; Eva Cheng, Chief Executive of Amway (Greater China and Southeast Asia, and Jing Ulrich, Chairperson and Managing director of JP Morgan Chase (China Equities). These women are well known in the Chinese business community for their determination, courage, and entrepreneurship. They are role models and are presented as the face of the new China. In a country where business has essentially been a man’s world, it is refreshing to see that women are able to challenge that stereotype.
The economic reforms in China in the 1980’s and the transition to a market economy have led to an expansion of the private sector and an increase in entrepreneurship. Many Chinese women, particularly those who are better educated, have seized the opportunity brought about by economic reform.
A friend of mine who was working in Beijing met with representatives of the China Association of Women Entrepreneurs - a group which was founded in 1985 to stimulate greater involvement of women in business. My friend said she was impressed by its members’ confidence and energy. Some of them admitted to only sleeping 4 hours per night which allowed them to work as a CEO and also take care of their family life.
There are still some obstacles that make it difficult for women to move into top management in China. These obstacles are mostly cultural coming from traditional Chinese values about the place where women and men occupy in Chinese society. Although traditional values have been weakened by the economic changes of the past 25 years, some attitudes die hard. The business world remains essentially male. Banks and financial institutions are generally unwilling to grant loans to women when they start their own business. Companies are reluctant to hire young women or promote them to higher positions since they are afraid they may take too much time off to take care of their family.
However, Chinese society is changing dramatically and women, particularly the young and better educated are motivated to meeting higher professional goals and become successful business executives and entrepreneurs.