Women: the rising stars in the new China
By : Waldmeir, Patti
Optimistic: Wang Jiafen of the Shanghai Women Entrepreneurs' Association sees opportunities for women in modern China Less than a century ago, many Chinese women had their feet broken and bound so tightly they could scarcely walk. Now the world's three richest self-made women are from China, and 11 out of 20 global female billionaires are Chinese. In many ways, they have communism to thank. Mao Zedong set out to make China a global model of gender equality, and although he failed at so much else, he largely succeeded in transforming Chinese society into a world where women think they are at least equal to men – and many men seem to agree. "Mao said, 'Women hold up half the sky,'" says Rupert Hoogewerf, founder of the China Rich List, which earlier this week published a ranking of the world's wealthiest self-made women. He placed Cheung Yan (Zhang Yin), the Chinese head of Nine Dragons Paper, a recycled-paper company, at number one with a personal fortune of .6bn. "The single most positive legacy [of communism in China] was the emancipation of women," write Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. "A century ago, China was arguably the worst place in the world to be born female," they write. But as Mr Hoogewerf says, "then Mao unbound their feet". He identifies complex political, social, cultural and economic reasons that made a scrap-paper entrepreneur from China richer than Oprah Winfrey or the doyennes of Zara, Gap, Benetton and Ebay. But much of it has to do with children – or the lack of them – and Chinese women's profoundly different attitude to childcare. "In the west and Japan, after marriage women stay at home to look after the kids, but in modern China it's not like that," says Wang Jiafen, head of the Shanghai Women Entrepreneurs' Association. "Women will not stay at home to look after children. Chinese women do not want to stop their career just to be a housewife," she says. Ms Wang, 60, is now a jet-setting venture capitalist, having retired from a job heading one of China's biggest state-owned dairies. "In China, most women think it's boring to stay at home: they don't have anything to do," she says. Many western women might privately agree with Ms Wang, but few would pronounce it so publicly. But in China "there is no social stigma" to such attitudes, says Nandani Lynton of the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, who has spent 17 years in China. "Mao made an incredible difference when he said women hold up half the sky, since then it has been assumed that all women in China will work," she says. Easy availability of childcare helps: there is a tradition of grandparents caring for grandchildren, and Beijing's one-child policy has meant grandparents look after every child – an impossible dream for working women in the west. Yin Xinyu, vice-president at Shanghai Rural Commercial Bank, has three nannies, help from her parents and a tutor for her daughter in primary school. "So I don't need to stay at home", she says. But Prof Lynton says the availability of childcare – whether grandparents or childcare centres popularised under communism – is only half of it. "It's also very much an issue of what is acceptable," she says. "Chinese women have no role model for guilt, because even before the revolution, everyone who could afford it had an ayi [nanny or maid]". Traditional Chinese culture does not stress the importance of early childhood development, so many Chinese women do not feel guilty missing their children's formative years, she adds. Ms Yin, the banker, says women these days can choose between staying at home or working. "For the older generation, staying at home meant failure, but for my generation, staying at home is a personal choice," she says. "Many of my friends stay at home and I envy them." But when women choose the workplace, they often prove highly ambitious. According to a recent study from the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York, 76 per cent of women in China aspire to top jobs, compared with only 52 per cent in the US. Working mothers in China "are able to aim high, in part, because they have more shoulders to lean on than their American and European peers when it comes to childcare", the centre notes. With an average work week of 71 hours, the country's mothers would not cope without abundant cheap childcare. Two other factors contribute to the astonishing success of female entrepreneurs in China, says Mr Hoogewerf: one is the Cultural Revolution (think Mao's "Iron Girls" in their androgynous outfits), and the other is economic. Ms Wang says China's rising economy has lifted all boats, but those with females at the helm have fared better. "A thousand years ago, only men could compete with each other, but in the economic war, you need intelligence instead of just physical strength. China's strong economic growth has created more opportunities for women." Ms Yin has an even more intriguing explanation for the success of girls: schoolteachers in China reward compliant children, and girls make more obedient students. "Girls are always being praised in school, and they gain confidence that way," she says, noting "confidence is very important for an entrepreneur". In spite of these factors, China has not yet found the formula for perfect gender equality. In many rural areas, boys are still preferred to girls, leading to high levels of illegal (but still common) gender-selective abortion. In traditional Chinese society, sons are obliged to care for elderly parents, and their wives are expected to care for in-laws – not birth parents. In a society with a minimal social safety net for the elderly, this has led to a strong preference for sons in more traditional areas. But urbanisation has significantly eroded that trend too, with many urban families saying they prefer girls because they remain to care for the elderly that males may shirk – and increasingly because they are cheaper to raise than boys, who are expected to provide a home upon marriage, a crippling burden given high property prices. Echoing a common complaint of women all over the world, Ms Yin says equality in the workplace comes only after women have proved they are not just equal to men, but better. "Women need to be twice as good to get the same job," she says, although she stresses her career has not suffered due to gender discrimination. Will the world's rich lists still be dominated by the Chinese in a decade or two? Ironically, wealth may lead to fewer women in the workplace: women who do not need to work may choose to stay home and, according to Prof Lynton, rich Chinese men increasingly want trophy wives who do not work. But foot binding is not coming back any time soon: gender equality is a legacy of communism that appears to be here to stay.
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