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Angela Liu epitomised China’s new generation of women, attending the prestigious Zhejiang University before working her way up at a state bank and drawing a higher salary than her husband, a public servant.
All that changed when she turned 30 and gave birth to her first child. Very few women remain in senior positions at her bank, and so she quit to become a full-time housewife.
“Perhaps I should have done things another way, but attitudes in the public sector are still rather conservative,” says Ms Liu. “Maybe if I had gone abroad or worked for a start-up, I would have gone back to work.”
For decades, ideologically-imposed gender equality empowered women to pursue university degrees and ambitious careers in communist China.
Market-oriented reforms, however, have eroded the institutions designed to help women, while anachronistic policies hostile to working women, such as outright hiring discrimination, remain. The most remarkable gains are being made quietly in business, where women have a more direct impact on policies.
“In China, especially in tech companies, we are creating a new kind of corporate culture,” says Bianca Yin, a project manager at Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-hailing platform.
A combination of market reforms and a technology boom has helped private business to flourish, with revenue growth far outpacing that of state-owned enterprises. That economic clout has given those businesses a powerful voice in changing — albeit slowly — the patriarchal culture.
Companies have a particular effect on gender equality in China because female leadership is almost non-existent in the top echelons of the ruling Communist party. A woman has never been president or taken a seat in the party’s elite Politburo Standing Committee. Systematic gender bias is rampant.
Self-made female billionaires in China
— Hurun Report
A survey in 2015 by the state-run All-China Women’s Federation, found that 87 per cent of female university graduates experience discrimination when seeking employment. It is not uncommon for state-run businesses to advertise for married women only.
Various academic studies place the percentage of women who report sexual harassment or assault at between 30 per cent and 75 per cent among university students. The #MeToo movement against workplace harassment has struggled to find a foothold in China, where censors have worked overtime to scrub the web of any reference to sexual assault or efforts to mobilise.
Against this background, mentorship is cherished among businesswomen. “The most important [support that my co-founders] gave me was freedom,” says Daisy Guo. She set up the graphics design start-up Tezign, in Shanghai, in 2015 with the encouragement of her university professor.
She says women can pass on opportunities to other women by backing their ambitions: “If there are women at the founder level, things are much better. As a female, you will give other women with ability the space to grow.”
Rich, powerful women are not uncommon in China. The country is home to 49 of the world’s 78 self-made female billionaires, according to the Hurun Report, which tracks China’s wealthiest people. Rarer, however, are female business leaders who cast themselves as champions of gender equality. When they do, their impact can be felt widely.
Didi Chuxing president, Jean Liu, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, was the mother of young children when she was recruited to run the start-up. Didi’s staff say having such a role model in the business boosted morale. The company has set up a women’s network and piloted a leadership course.
“She understands us, what career development should look like and what challenges remain,” says Melody Tu, who like Ms Yin, took Didi Chuxing’s leadership course, and now heads Didi’s women’s network. The first course, for 24 female employees ended last year, and Didi expects it to run again.
Although more female entrepreneurs are emerging, the phenomenon is still relatively new. “In my grandparents’ generation, women were given quite a lot of support. There was a movement to allow women to do more work and go to school,” says Shirley So, co-founder of GLO Kitchen+Fitness, a gym and café in Beijing. “But specifically in starting a new business, I feel like that has only happened in the past 20 years or so.”
For Ms So, the restaurant half of her business is still mainly male, and she has tailored her leadership style accordingly. “I have to learn to be mindful of the way I communicate to them or the way I walk round in the kitchen,” she says. That includes wearing more masculine or gender-neutral clothing.
Ms Guo, whose fellow co-founders are both men, notes that she presents her boardroom opinions in ways that emphasise data after finding her male colleagues are then more receptive.
Yet successful women say they still struggle with doing business, especially in industries, such as finance, that remain mostly run by men.
Women bear the burden of reading the situation when professional and social spheres collide, even feeling guilty if they spurn romantic overtures from a potentially helpful contact, says Annie Zhou, founder of Universal Pacific Advisors, a consulting company.
She gave up some of her contacts, believing that not even a professional relationship was worth the emotional stress but recognises that others may not be able to do the same. “What women [in China] face is that a lot of the time they have potential business relationships with these people, so they feel uncomfortable telling them that they are uncomfortable.”
Yet overall, women in business in China say circumstances are improving, particularly when the momentum is maintained by trailblazers.
Ms Tu says: “A big part of [gender equality] is awareness — envisioning some female leaders who are pretty advanced in their careers and who, through being that role model, [affect] more women throughout the company.”