What does the prominence of successful businesswomen, despite pressure from society and family, say about the glass ceiling in China?

Family pressures and workplace biases mean that women in China have only a one-in-15 chance of reaching a company’s highest management levels, according to a recent survey by Bain & Company.

But China is a big country. Although the glass ceiling for women is still generally solid, its thickness depends on where a woman stands. In a Chinese company, she might wait an awfully long time before being noticed: in China’s top 20 domestic companies, 96 percent of executive committee members are men—195 men to eight women, and 65 percent of those companies have no female executives at all, according to statistics compiled by 20-first, a British consultancy specializing in gender balance issues.

At foreign multinationals operating in China, however, women seem to have many more opportunities. A benchmarking survey of multinational companies by Community Business, a Hong Kong non-profit focused on corporate social responsibility, found that the multinationals operating in China that it surveyed had an average of 35.6 percent women at senior levels—ahead of multinationals operating in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and India.

Which part of the ceiling represents the future? Will the ceiling stay thick, or will it evolve more along the lines of multinationals operating in China, where opportunities within China are good and a few women are now even being given global leadership roles?

Gail Hershatter, a historian at the University of California at Santa Cruz who specializes in Chinese women’s history, feels the social and economic situation in China is too complex right now to say whether conditions are getting better or worse for women. “It’s not something on which anyone should try to render a simple verdict,” she says.

Under Mao Zedong, propaganda encouraged women to take up non-traditional kinds of work. Now, however, some researchers argue that this legacy may be threatened by a number of social and demographic trends. “By the numbers they’re doing pretty well, but I think there are some fundamental shifts in society that really call into question the sustainability of the talent pipeline for women,” says Sophie Guerin, senior manager for diversity and inclusion at Community Business.

Social pressures on women may be growing, observers say. Educated career women are being portrayed more and more often in popular culture as picky and materialistic. There are also more jobs today that depend on appearance. To an extent, 25 years after the first reforms, the Chinese are still reveling in what the French call la difference. The number of careers that depend on looks has grown, and may distract some women from developing longer-lived advantages, according to Hershatter. The idea of being a stay-at-home mother is also more attractive now than in the pre-reform days.

Demographically, the one-child policy may make demanding careers more difficult to pursue as well. Guerin argues that in 10-15 years, the lack of a safety net means that more women will be expected to take on the responsibility of caring for their husbands’ aging parents as well as their own, because the one-child policy means that the husbands typically have no siblings with whom the families might share the burden.

Although the participation in the labor force remains high, Bain executives argue that the deficit of women in the upper echelons of corporate power puts the country at economic risk.

Historically, this equation between women’s rights and national strength has tended to be an effective pitch, according to Hershatter. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, such practices as footbinding ended less because women pushed against them than because nationalists began to see them as practices that weakened China and threatened its independence. What we call feminism became linked with national survival,” says Hershatter.

However, this time around, lobbying to encourage fairer treatment for women does not need to be driven by fear that China will be left behind. By certain measures, China already does about as well as most developed countries when it comes to women’s leadership. Even compared to the West, China holds its own in gender relations. For example, the country has the second-highest percentage of female CEOs in the world, after the US and Canada—2.5 percent compared to 3.5 percent in the US, according to a recent survey by Strategy&, a unit of PwC.

On the executive committee level, China is also not that far off either. Chinese executive committees may be 96 percent male, but Germany’s are 93 percent. France and the United Kingdom are not much more diverse (85 percent and 84 percent respectively), but in France at least, the numbers are slightly deceptive: more than half the female executives tracked by 20-first come from four companies. Even in the US, one of the world’s most gender-blind major markets, men make up 80 percent of the executive committees, according to 20-first.

In Hershatter’s view, the discrimination Chinese women face is not very different from the discrimination women face elsewhere. “It’s not unique at all,” she says. “They’ve got a particular configuration of circumstances, partly because so many things have changed so quickly, but the kinds of things that they’re struggling with are the kinds of thing everybody is struggling with.’’

This suggests that China may have an opportunity to gain a tremendous comparative advantage by encouraging more women to pursue management careers. Many of the current generation of female executives are formidable. One American executive recruiter who places Chinese managers in Western multinationals has glowing things to say about the women she recruits. “The pool of women candidates, I find excellent, really outstanding… I’ve worked in search in the US and search in China and China has a fantastic candidate pool, really fabulous,” says Alexandra Hendrickson, a partner at Odgers Berndtson Executive Search in Shanghai.

Some of the women are so good that Western multinationals are beginning to tap them for top global jobs, according to Hendrickson: Jane Xu of Hershey, for instance, has been moved from the candy company’s Vice President-General Manager for Greater China to a more senior job as Senior Director of Reese’s US back at headquarters in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

As entrepreneurs too, a number of Chinese women have demonstrated an exceptional knack for business: about a third of China’s (dollar-term) 1 million millionaires are women. More remarkably, 19 of the world’s 46 self-made female billionaires are from China, a larger number than any other country, according to the Hurun Report, a national wealth survey.

“China’s a place where there are a lot of successful women around. This is not a place where women are not educated and they’re not promoted. I think an ambitious woman can be successful here,” Hendrickson says.

[box] This article has been reprinted with permission from CKGSB Knowledge, the online research journal of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB), China’s leading independent business school. For more articles on China business strategy, please visit CKGSB Knowledge. [/box]

(Photo by COD Newsroom via Flickr)

Posted by Bennett Voyles