Suzanne Edwards, with reporting by Greg Isaacson Authors

Gender Equality in the Workplace: Is China Ahead?

May 12, 2014


CKGSB Knowledge cuts through the punditry and asks three women business leaders to air their views on gender equality in the workplace and China’s ‘glass ceiling.

The line-up: The three women business leaders who shared their views on the glass ceiling.

International media seem to relish the topic of gender roles in China, with one side of the debate insisting women are downcast while the other side insists China is a progressive forerunner in the promotion of female leaders, particularly in business. So which is it? And how does the status quo play out in China’s cor­porate environment? In a country where men-only job ads proliferate, and hiring managers often probe female applicants about their dating life and maternal plans, it’s easy to forget that China is home to some of the highest net-worth female individuals in the world, the majority of whom achieved such status through their business success.

The numbers are equal­ly confusing: according to a survey of publicly listed companies from Nanyang Technological University, fewer than 12% of senior executives at listed firms are fe­male, but according to a Grant Thornton International Business Report, which in­cludes private companies of obscure size, 43% of the businesses surveyed in China held women in senior management posi­tions. To better wade through the statis­tics and talking points, CKGSB Knowledge talks with several high-powered women on the ground about the trends they’re see­ing, and the prospects for Chinese women looking to carve out a place for themselves in today’s business world.

Q. What challenges do you feel business­women face in China today?

Lisa Pan: The business environment in China is slightly different than in Europe. In Europe, a lot of political or business leaders are female and the public seems al­ready used to that. However, in China, fe­male business leaders are still rare, and the public still doubts if businesswomen [can] balance family and work: actually a lot of pressure [comes] from your own family. Another challenge is that some male busi­ness leaders are still quite traditional, they think they are more powerful than women, and they should lead the business, so it’s quite hard to persuade them to accept your opinion sometimes.

Q. In the past five years or more, have you observed any interesting changes in the business environment when it comes to the role of women executives?

Lisa Pan: I think along with more and more female executives becoming suc­cessful, this topic [has] become quite at­tractive. [The] public is [willing] to accept successful businesswomen [more] than before. For example, 10 years ago, if a lady [was] still single [at] around 30, peo­ple would judge her in some unfair way. But now, if a businesswoman [is] single when she [in her] 30s, people would ac­cept and appreciate that. And the power of businesswomen is becoming stronger, and men [are] getting used to working for [a] female boss.

Su Cheng Harris Simpson: In recent years we have seen a greater level of so­phistication when it comes to diversity and inclusion programs in China. As a result there are greater channels of support for aspiring female entrepreneurs in China. In addition to WEConnect International, FYSE, 85 Broads, VIVA, various Cham­bers of Commerce, Community Business and others all provide tools, networking and advancement opportunities for women executives.

Lucy Lei: In the past, it was harder for women to get into senior management. There were fewer chances for women to demonstrate their management capability outside their technical skills. Nowadays it is good to see progressive corporations paying more attention to diversity. So in that way I believe that today capable women have a better chance of entering corporate senior management roles.

Q. When have you ever been aware of the fact that the rules might be a little different for you as a businesswoman than they are for a businessman?

Lucy Lei: Years ago I was working in Singapore in the regional headquarters of a multinational company as the Asia- Pacific Regional Manager for a division. I was the only women at this level at the regional headquarters. All my European male colleagues had individual office rooms, I was the only one who didn’t have [one]. I sat with others in the shared area, which I did not mind. I had asked the management to provide me an office when there was a vacant one. Nothing happened for long. However, one day one office room became vacant when a col­league resigned. So I asked to move into that office. I got no as an answer because “it was reserved for a colleague coming from the UK in two months”. Two months later, the office was filled by a male col­league of the same level as me! I felt this was not about me anymore, this was about a boy’s club against women. In such an environment, my voice was too weak to be heard.

A few months passed, and another re­gional manager resigned so an office be­came vacant. This time I did not wait for the office to be assigned to me. I just moved in after it was vacant for two months. I plugged in my computer and I wrote an email to the managing director informing him that I had moved into the vacant of­fice. He said, ‘Oh, this will be reserved for someone’, and I wrote back: ‘When that new person comes, we can discuss wheth­er I move back to the shared desk or the newcomer will take my seat’. I stayed in that office until our office relocated to a different part of the city. Afterwards they recruited another female regional manager and she got an office as well.

This tells me that working in a boys’ club environment, if the first woman doesn’t push, then all the women behind her [will] never have a chance.

I am very fortunate to work today in an organization where everyone is equal. Our organization values diversity and equality. We have two women in the global execu­tive team, including myself.

Q. Journalists love to ask successful wom­en about “work-family balance”. Do you feel this is a fair question? What do you think the meaning of “work-family bal­ance” is for modern working families in China today?

Lisa Pan: I think it’s a fair question. In [a] traditional family, people think wom­en should spend more time taking care of [the] family, husband and [the] children, so how to balance work [and] family is [a] challenge.

I think if the family members have international study or work experience, [then] they understand and support each other. [In that case] I don’t see [that] it’s an issue. You could even discuss your business with your partner and enjoy that. But I don’t think [a] husband-wife busi­ness partnership is good. Everyone is in­dependent and needs [their] own time and space.

Lucy Lei: Yes this question is always addressed to women! I believe a woman can take care of her family and career at the same time, we just need to spend time wisely in more qualitative way instead of quantitatively. When we lived in Singa­pore, most of the students’ mothers in my daughter’s international school did not work. It was reassuring to hear my daugh­ter say, ‘Mom, I appreciate your limited time spent with me more than some of my friends do with their moms [who are with them] the whole day.’ She wanted quality time, not ‘quantity of time’.

Q. Do you feel there is any difference be­tween what defines a successful business man in China and what defines a success­ful business woman in China?

Su Cheng Harris Simpson: One of the major differences we see with women entrepreneurs is their likelihood of being local or regional suppliers rather than na­tional or international suppliers. Women entrepreneurs in China tend to have ro­bust local networks and are extremely competitive in this market. However, when it comes to the larger national net­work we see fewer women in this sector. This is due to a number of factors includ­ing access to networks, the preference for companies to stay with suppliers that they are familiar with, the struggle of work-life balance and family commitments. One factor that we have seen in women-owned companies that have made this jump is the involvement of other family members. For example, Shanghai Lanli Textiles is a first-tier supplier to many of our corporate members in addition to supplying other women entrepreneurs across the globe. They have managed to make this possible by making it a true family enterprise. This has allowed them to become competitive in terms of re­sponse times, customer relations, growth and product range.

Lucy Lei: Like yin and yang coexist in the universe, inside every woman there is also masculine power, and inside every man also feminine power. To be a success­ful businesswoman in a corporate world, a woman needs to place herself as an equal. I believe I am equal to a man in capability, however I share my equality in a gentle way. I don’t believe in aggressive confron­tation. I’m assertive in a friendly way.

Q. There’s a popular stereotype that often surfaces when talking about gender and business that men are bigger risk takers, how do you interpret this idea? To what extent do you agree or disagree and is China any different from other countries in this regard?

Su Cheng Harris Simpson: In terms of the businesses that we work with in China, we have found that our women entrepre­neurs are competitive and reliable. They are able to put forth competitive bids for demanding contracts. They are open and able to accommodate unique requests and large contracts. However, they are also realistic when it comes to their scope and capacity. Rather than failing to deliver on a contract, they will work with the corpo­ration to identify a suitable alternative or make appropriate recommendations. In this case, I think our corporations appre­ciate the flexibility and reliability of their women suppliers.

Q. What does it mean overall to be an ad­vocate for businesswomen in Asia?

Su Cheng Harris Simpson: It’s excit­ing to be in Asia in the field of women’s economic empowerment. This field is relatively new in China, which provides a unique set of challenges but a wide range of opportunities. In all that we have ac­complished over the last three years, it is exciting to think about what the next stage of growth will bring.

Q. What advice do you have for ambitious women who are still in the early stages of their careers?

Lisa Pan: I think they have to really know what they want in their life and [whether] they are ready to sacrifice a lot. For ex­ample, less time for friends [and] family; [being] challenged by [the] public and personal exposure to the public when you become successful.

Then you have to [always] be so­cializing and winning respect from male leaders. Good degrees are helpful but not enough, you must have your own opinion and be persistent.

Lucy Lei: China needs Chinese manage­ment with global experience and a global mindset, who can think laterally and who know how to play in a flat world. This demand comes from the ever-increasing numbers of multinational companies who call China their strategic markets, and also many Chinese companies expanding overseas. However there is a huge gap between the demand and supply.

The younger generation today tends to seek instant gratification. It is not unusual to receive comments like “Will I get more pay?” when management sees a potential employee and want to develop the person by changing or expanding his or her scope of work. In my opinion, when you are young and you are developing your ca­reer, a [fat] paycheck today should not be one’s first criteria. I think broadening one’s experience and knowledge and scope to build a foundation for the future is more important. When you have ac­quired the knowledge, skills, experience and mindset that corporations look for, money will come. So don’t let instant pay­checks limit your growth. You need to be flexible enough to move into the un­known, to walk on the path less travelled. The reward will come.

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