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Explaining the lack of women in China's elite business and politics

Image credit: Frank Schulenburg (Wikimedia Commons)

In both business and politics in China, there is a striking lack of representation, and lack of progress in the representation of Chinese females at the top.

Representation at the elite level is important for lots of reasons. It creates visible role models in society, women’s issues are made more of a priority, and there is a strong case for the argument that an increase in women’s labour market potential helps to support a country’s economic growth and GDP.

Chinese society is still struggling to reconcile the leadership opportunities the post-reform era offers with traditional Chinese ideas of femininity and a woman’s role in society. Terms describing powerful women—Nü hanzi (女汉子masculine woman) or qiang nü (强女 strong woman)—are used in today’s China in both the pejorative and the positive. The most powerful women’s group in China, the state-backed All-China Women’s Federation, has been criticised for its sexist attitudes towards China’s ‘left-over women’ (剩女 sheng nü), unwavering support for China’s family planning policies and internalising traditional gender roles through its public campaigns. And anything even constituting a ‘feminist’ group has been crushed under recent crackdowns on civil society.

Chinese women at all levels of society have always had it tough. Traditional Chinese society based on the twin doctrines of Confucianism and Legalism encouraged women’s subordination and oppression through the ‘Three Obediences and the Four Virtues’(三从四德). A woman’s first duty in life was to her father as a daughter, then to tend to her husband and, in widowhood, to be subservient to her sons.

After the Communist victory, women’s rights improved dramatically as the first piece of legislation in the new government was passed outlawing underage marriage, arranged unions and a ban on foot-binding. Mao Zedong firmly believed that ‘whatever men comrades can do, woman comrades can too’. Women were strongly encouraged to stand for elected office, and their rights to do so were enshrined in the Constitution. Even so, the idea found throughout most of Chinese history—that powerful women are by nature immoral, the ruin of men and a destructive force on society—is one that has endured.

China has never had a female president, nor a female member of the Standing Committee—the most powerful decision-making body in China. Its current figure of 8% female Politburo members and 4% female Central Committee members is broadly consistent throughout the party’s history. It has no women serving as a party secretary at the provincial or municipal level, only 8% female national-level ministers, and around 6% of governors of provinces, municipalities and SAR regions are female. Its National People’s Congress, the nation’s ‘parliament’, fares slightly better at 23.4% (versus the United States at 19.4%).

A decision unanimously adopted since the 7th NPC stipulates that the proportion of female delegates must increase year on year. And it has—albeit slightly. But in general, there exists few specific policies aimed at targeting unconscious or conscious gender discrimination for women standing for office or increasing the number of female party members, especially at the rural level. Little more than 1% of village committee chairs in 2014 were women, and only 20% of the CCP’s membership in 2016 was female. This matters because a lack of support at the grassroots level feeds into a wider system of political disenfranchisement.

The strict institutional rules of elite Chinese politics also serve as a barrier to women’s advancement. Neither sex can realistically expect to enter the elite until at least 45; by CCP norm politicians must retire by 65. Factional affiliation and patronage by senior members are also incredibly important, as many senior-level women currently affiliated with the out of favour Youth League (Tuanpai 团派) have found out. Promotions within the party have historically also tended to prioritise those in more ‘useful’ portfolios, like ideology or economics, or those as party secretaries and those who have worked in multiple positions in multiple provinces. These factors have all led Brookings analyst Cheng Li to predict little change in the proportion of powerful female Chinese leaders at this year’s 19th Party Congress.

In business, the outlook is more positive. Data from the Hurun Wealth Report shows that two-thirds of the world’s self-made female billionaires hail from Mainland China, and an oft-cited Grant Thornton International Business report (endorsed by state-run China Daily) claims that 31% of the mid-market businesses surveyed in China had at least one woman holding a C-suite position. Yet, research from Nanyang Technological University found that fewer than 12% of senior executives in Chinese SOEs were female, and Bloomberg research found that only one out of 120 was run by a woman. Further, a World Economic Forum report found that, overall, only 17% of China’s managers were women. The statistics paint a rosier picture than for politics, but it’s still not an ideal one.

The larger proportion of women in business can be explained by the essentially equal split in undergraduate and graduate education rates, even in STEM, coupled with less stringent institutional rules than in politics. In addition, China’s relatively recent economic reforms and the development of SEZs have allowed for a more equal starting point for women’s accumulation of wealth and entry into private enterprise. Women also benefit from the expectation that grandparents will share the burden of childcare. Even considering China’s pay gap of $1 for every $1.61 a man earns, this is hardly different to Australia at $1:$1.59 or the United States at $1:$1.54.

In both industries, arguably the most significant deterrent to women’s advancement is a workplace culture that is heavily geared towards men. China’s business and political culture emphasises guanxi (relationships 关系) to help cultivate relationships between colleagues, businessman and government officials. As John Osburg discusses in his ethnographic study of the new rich in China, shared experiences of elite masculine forms of leisure such as banqueting, drinking, smoking, group massages and foot baths, playing Mahjong, and socialising with female hostesses are what help to build relationships in China. Such activities are not deemed to be undertaken by ‘proper women’, and women who do so are stigmatised. But not participating means falling behind on climbing the corporate ladder or failing to be promoted.

As China is exposed to international discourse and policy ideas about women in the workplace, it is likely that the proportion of women in elite business will increase. Unfortunately, China’s predominantly male executive, and strong institutional constraints mean that increasing the number of women in the Communist Party is hardly seen as a policy priority.

Jacinta Keast in the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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