China’s Porous Glass Ceiling – How Women Entrepreneurs Compete and Succeed in China

“Women”, in Mao Zedong’s memorable phrase, “hold up half the sky”. While not strictly the case in the business world, Chinese women do play a far more prominent role, both in starting and running big companies in China, than their sisters do elsewhere, particularly in the US and Europe.

According to a study last year by accounting firm Grant Thornton,  women hold 34% of the senior management positions in China, compared to an average of 20% elsewhere in the world. The percentages are also moving in opposite directions, with a greater proportion of top jobs in China going to women recently. Women held 31% of management jobs in China in 2009. Meantime, women are becoming less common in senior management in Europe and US, down from 24% over the same period.

And, no, it’s not just a case of women dominating “soft functions” like HR and accounting, as they often tend to do in the West. In China, 19% of women in management roles are serving as CEOs, compared to 8% elsewhere. A significant quotient of partners at private equity firms in China are women. The most talented and capable person in investment banking in China I know, Wang Yansong,  is female — even better, she works with me.

If there is a “glass ceiling” in China, it must be quite porous.

In my three-plus years in China, I’ve met far more successful big-time women entrepreneurs and bosses than I did in 25 years working in US and Europe. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with several, including one of China’s most well-known entrepreneurs, Mrs. He Yongzhi, the founder of the country’s largest spicy hotpot restaurant chain, 小天鹅, or “Little Cygnet”, with over 400 high-end restaurants across China.

Mrs. He started the business 30 years ago in a tiny alcove, with just five tables –no capital, no powerful backers and a competitor on every street corner. And yet, she has thrived. She invented the now-ubiquitous “yin-yang” twin-flavored stock pot commonly used not just in her own restaurant but in hotpot restaurants around the country.

Along with the restaurant chain, she also runs a food processing company, producing bottled hot sauces with her face on every label, and a large commercial real estate business, including five hotels in Chongqing, Sichuan and Tibet. Her daughter Weijia is a chip off the entrepreneurial block,  having started a high-end tea business called Nenlü.

Mrs. He’s  restaurant company has Sequoia Capital as an investor, and is planning an IPO next year that will likely make her into another of China’s self-made billionairesses. Already, half of the world’s self-made billionaires are from China. Over 10% of the richest businesspeople in China are women. That may not sound like much, but is light-years ahead of most every place in the world. In a typical working year, I will meet at least 10 women bosses who are well on the way to building an enormous fortune as founder and majority-owner of companies that may likely one day have an IPO in China.

Indeed, it’s one of the great joys of my working life, that I meet so many great “lady laoban”, as we call them, using the Chinese word for “boss”. I especially like meeting with women running metal-bashing businesses.  One of the more successful and elegant women bosses I know started and runs one of China’s largest private auto parts companies, making aluminum ventilation and heating systems for cars and large trucks.

At the factory, she wears a smock with the cotton elbow-protectors once in vogue among 19th century English bookkeepers. Her husband works for her, as head of the security team. Her likely successor? Her one daughter, a recent new mom, who runs the company in tandem with her mother. Both mother and daughter are warm, lovely, attractive, fully at ease talking to truck mechanics and engineers, or walking the factory floor.

It may be a coincidence, but many of the women bosses I know do not have sons. Only daughters. Did they work harder in their professional lives to overcome the stigma (then large, now thankfully smaller) of having only girl children? It could be. But, such Western-style psychological theorizing seems misplaced. China has more great women entrepreneurs because 30 years ago, as China was ending its costly experiment with Maoist socialism, there were new huge areas of money-making opportunity open to all.  Gender mattered less than ambition, diligence, persuasiveness, business acumen and leadership skills. China after 1978 was a commercial “tabula rasa”. There were few established business rules and basically no role models (positive or negative) for anyone to follow.

China traditionally is a male-focused society, with deep-set roots in Confucian thinking that put husbands and sons well above the rank of wives and daughters. In many ways, this mindset still persists in China. And yet, paradoxically,  a society that puts men on a higher social plane can also provide women entrepreneurs with something of a level playing field in business.

In the last year, along with the two lady bosses already mentioned, I’ve met women who started and now run successful companies that make high-end LED screens, lease cars, provide an online B2B transaction platform, make and export embroidered blankets to Williams Sonoma. Never once have I heard a complaint about gender-discrimination or even a hint that the company has been victimized by negative perceptions about female bosses.

In the end, starting a company anywhere requires a tolerance of — if not full bear hug embrace of — risk. Women, so I’ve read, are programmed from birth to shun risk. It’s meant to be the reason there are comparatively few women combat soldiers and motorcycle riders, as well as successful entrepreneurs.

Gender theorists obviously never looked closely at China. Equally, Chinese women weren’t taught why they were destined by biology to underperform men in the workplace, to start fewer businesses, to climb high on fewer corporate ladders. Spared knowledge of these “facts”, they’re in full pursuit of their dreams and ambitions.

5 thoughts on “China’s Porous Glass Ceiling – How Women Entrepreneurs Compete and Succeed in China”

  1. So true, Peter, in my 25 years of doing business in China, there have always been strong female leaders who are well-respected and followed by the male employees. The JV I started in China in the 90’s ended up with a female GM, and half the other managers and engineers were women. In a country where Americans wince at ads which specify gender and age qualifications, women really do have an opportunity to put their talents to use.

    BTW, yours is the only blog about China I read consistently. Every post is insightful and goes beyond the superficial look most of us Westerners get of China business.

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  3. It would not be surprised that in the Modern China gender comes into a second place to economic achievements. A few of my female business associates are logical, reasonable and sympathetic. Sometimes I am impressed by the way they balance their business and their families. Not everyone of them is ‘iron lady’ or remotely resemble similar traits. Often time when it comes to making important decisions and practical realities, they are the ones who come up with pragmatic and face-saving solutions for the situation. Regardless how much chauvinistic fundamentals her males associates would have, Chinese men simple bite the bullet. And that makes China grows the fastest in the last 30 yrs comparing other nations.

  4. Many thanks for yet another great post.

    During my first few visits to China in the late 90’s I was always surprised by the number of women engineers working at the likes of Alcatel Shanghai Bell (ASB) etc., more of than not at quite senior positions. This was very unlike any of my other visits to similar organisations in Europe, Middle East or other parts of Asia.

    Similar observations have been made about women managing household finance in China. Unlike the ROW, women seem to have a much more even footing in China in many parts of life. I have noted in the past, that even though a son is still deemed a prize, that daughters apparently are significantly more likely to contribute to the Chinese family i.e. senior relatives, than a male (financial & time wise).

  5. I am biased having been married to a wonderful Chinese lady for 35 years, and living in China for 25 years since 1973, I think the reasons Chinese women are so successful in business is they are harder working, and because they are discriminated against since birth (boys are better idea) they have to try harder at everything to succeed. They are also better than men working with people, the foundation of guanxi and business in China.

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