Mao once famously said that women hold up half of the sky – a meaningful comment in a time when the country was run on ideology. Now that the economy is the main driving factor, how are women doing?
China is above the global average for percentage of women in the workforce as well as in management positions. It was ranked number 32 out of 136 countries for gender equality in “labor force participation” by the World Economic Forum in a 2013 report. It also has a higher percentage of its women employed than does the US, France, or Germany. This includes a fair number of high-earners with several female Chinese self-made billionaires on the Forbes 500 list in recent years.
While women have seen increased opportunities in business in recent years, the glass ceiling seems to have only been broken in certain industries. In the business sector, one challenge for young female entrepreneurs in China at the moment is that the current trend for new businesses is IT startups, which tends to be a heavily male-dominated industry. According to a list of female billionaires, women tend to prevail in the food, pharmaceutical and real estate businesses within China’s economy.
The 2013 Forbes China list of its richest individuals included three women in the top twenty, all in the real estate field. Despite this similarity, they are a fairly diverse group, with differences in age, education, marital status, and location. Chinese women also tend to lead companies as part of a family unit, often taking the place of their father or co-owning with their husband. As a result, many of them are listed as themselves “and family” on the list, as opposed to men who are generally considered singular leaders of the company.
The richest woman in China is Yang Huiyan (7th overall at $7.2 billion dollars), a 32-year old Foshan resident who took over her father’s stake in residential property sales company Country Garden several years ago. Following the completion of her degree from Ohio State University, she took over the company before its 2007 IPO and has recently announced plans to enter the Australian market.
Yang Huiyan of Country Garden Holdings Dong Mingzhu of Gree Electronics
Chan Laiwa, 73, is the 11th richest person in China with an estimated worth of $6 billion dollars. Based in Beijing, she chairs the Fu Wah International Group, making her one of Beijing’s largest property owners with investments in luxury hotels, clubhouses, apartments, and office buildings including landmark architecture in both Beijing and Hong Kong.
Wu Yajun, number 20 on the list at a net worth of $4.1 billion dollars, is the co-founder and chair of real estate firm Longfor Properties. The 50-year old divorcee has a degree in engineering and began her career in a state-owned instrument panel factory before making her way to her current position in which she oversees more than 10,000 employees with projects in 21 cities across China.
Other notable female business leaders include Chu Yam Liu (chair of fragrances and tobacco flavoring supplier Huabao International Holdings), Dong Mingzhu (President of Gree Electric Appliances), Lei Jufang (chair of pharmaceutical supplier Tibet Cheezheng Tibetan Medicine), and Fan Xiulian (vice chairperson of Xizang Haisco Pharmaceutical).
The relatively high percentage of women in the workforce is not surprising given China’s tertiary education statistics. Women make up approximately half of undergraduate students and even more so in graduate programs (although they still only account for about 35% of doctoral students). This is especially impressive given the gender disparity in China, with 118 men for every 100 women, meaning that a significantly higher percentage of women overall receive a higher education degree compared to men.
As for gender inequality in Chinese culture, the country is famous for its problem with a massive gender gap due to a preference for baby boys. However, there are actually several cultural norms that benefit working women (and the baby preference is by now quite outdated in urban areas). One advantage of Chinese women is a relatively high minimum age for marriage, thereby encouraging girls to earn a bachelor’s degree before starting a family (not the original intention of the law, but effective anyway). With the law set to age 20 for women and 22 for men, it is nearly the highest in the world, offering women a better opportunity for independence before marriage.
Another significant cultural advantage for Chinese women is support for working mothers. Although more young Chinese are now living in different parts of the country than their parents, there is still a dominant cultural norm for grandparents to take care of grandchildren, thereby allowing young mothers to work. Women in China are also legally required to be given 98 days of paid maternity leave (comparatively, the US has no legal requirement for paid leave).
While there are positive signs for increased female equality in Chinese society, there are still many challenges. Like most areas of the world, Chinese women still receive lower pay on average in the same position as men (despite laws against this in the country). They also face a higher redundancy rate and are more frequently forced into early retirement. Despite the positive statistics in higher education, there have in recent years been reports about admission policies discriminating against women in certain fields in an attempt to keep the percentage of men higher, such as in languages, which tend to be overwhelmingly dominated by female students. Additionally, equality for women is not developing uniformly across socio-economic groups as rural and especially migrant women still face many challenges that urban women do not.
Culturally, there is also still a pervasive idea in China that women should be married by a certain age and their most important role is to have a child. While this seems to be mostly a pressure from older generations, terms such as “leftover women” and the constant push on young women to find a boyfriend are still creating a stigma for unmarried career women. The cultural practice of expecting the husband (or his family) to provide an apartment for newlyweds also implies that the man is expected to be the main breadwinner, with a wife still economically dependent on him. Unfortunately this is one area in which young women themselves are reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes by looking for men that can provide for them rather than assuming financial independence.
In spite of the fact that China has relatively modern laws concerning gender equality, it is still in the governmental sphere that women are really being kept behind. The PRC Constitution has laws regarding gender equality, including that husbands and wives have the same property rights, that they should have equal employment and salary opportunities, equal divorce laws, and it includes better maternity leave rights than some developed countries. However, it remains in the government and state-run sphere that gender equality is at its worst.
Female representation in the Chinese government is extremely disproportionate (though China is certainly not alone in this problem). Women made up slightly more than 23% of the Twelfth National Congress. In comparison, women already made up over 22% of the Congress in 1975 – not a lot of progress in nearly 30 years. More importantly, there has never been a woman in the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the real decision-making body of the government.
While there are some nominal attempts to bring women into government positions, these tend to be low-ranking, less significant spots. For example, there are spaces legally reserved for women in local governments, but they are often delegated to the family planning posts – considered more appropriate for a woman.
State-owned enterprises are another area in which women are largely excluded from leadership roles. Partly due to the government connections, in which men are so overwhelmingly favored, the percentage of female CEOs in SOEs compared to private enterprises is drastically lower.
People outside of China may be surprised by the relative gender parity in urban China given international news reports about the gender gap and poor working conditions. However, those inside China are unlikely to find these statistics startling as women clearly make up a significant portion of university campuses and office spaces everywhere you go - a surprisingly positive sign for a nation at this stage of development. While the Constitution has laid an important foundation for women’s rights, it is mostly society and largely women themselves, who have led this phenomenon. Perhaps in a country this large, and especially with an aging population, it is simply not practical to discriminate in the work force. However, there are still clear industries as well as the government sphere which remain a hurdle in the way of women’s equality. Hopefully women’s role as a major force in GDP growth can spur further changes to bring women fully into the economic and lawmaking institutions.