Where China's Gender Gap Is Shrinking, and Where It Isn't

Where China's Gender Gap Is Shrinking, and Where It Isn't

By Ben Halder


In China, women are still shut out of politics … but in business, it’s a different story.

By Ben Halder

Ching shih

Cheng I Sao

Source Qilai Shen/Getty

China has a long history of powerful women. The 18th-century pirate Cheng I Sao commanded the largest band of pirates ever assembled, thought to be around 40,000 strong. Empress Dowager Cixi was China’s de facto leader for almost half a century until her death in 1908. Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao, was a leading political figure in her own right and played a hugely significant role in the country’s disastrous Cultural Revolution from her seat on the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo. 

One look at a lineup of China’s top political body today suggests that opportunities for women in China have gone backward since then. Sun Chunlan, vice premier of the State Council, is the only woman on China’s 25-seat Politburo. But drawing the conclusion that there’s a sizable gender gap in China would be doing the country a huge disservice. 

In virtually every industry and sector outside politics, opportunities have never been so plentiful for women in China. Unlike Sun, Yang Huiyan, China’s richest woman, has plenty of company. In fact … 

The list of China’s richest people shows that nearly 30 percent are female.

That’s according to the latest list of nearly 1,900 names released in October by the Hurun Report. It signals a rise of more than 25 percent since 2015 when just over 20 percent of those named were women. Compare that to Forbes’ list of the 400 richest Americans, where only 14 percent are women. Perhaps more impressively, 7 out of 10 women on the Chinese list are self-made, and women succeeded across a varied mix of sectors, including retail, real estate and entertainment. 

China has more female entrepreneurs than any other country in the world by a comfortable margin. According to consulting firm Grant Thornton, 88 percent of Chinese companies have one or more women in their senior management. This compares to an average of 75 percent globally. Furthermore, China outstrips many Western nations when it comes to the percentage of senior roles filled by women: 31 percent compared to 22 percent in the U.K. and 21 percent in the U.S.


A separate report by the Silicon Valley Bank in 2016 suggests there is a similar trend with Chinese startups, with 79 percent having a woman in their C-suite. The U.K. and U.S. have 53 and 54 percent, respectively. Many Chinese startups also have programs to ensure this number continues to rise — 63 percent have structures in place to increase the number of women in leadership positions.

Over the past generation, opportunities for women have increased hugely, says Hai Ping, the general manager for overseas business at an insurance firm in Beijing. But the number of women in senior positions doesn’t necessarily reflect the true extent of the opportunities available to them. “Chinese women are still influenced by traditional ideas,” she says, meaning many very well-educated women still prioritize raising a family over their careers. This has also affected Hai’s career. “I gave up a promotion to a very senior position in order to have more time to take care of family,” she says.

Lana Hu, founder and CEO of Amcare Health Group and Ernst & Young’s 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year for China, agrees that opportunities are growing. “As women have the same opportunities in education and even achieve better academic results, there is much less discrimination than before,” she says. But, she adds, traditional values prevent the gap from narrowing even further.

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China’s political body features few women.

The reason why women haven’t gained as much traction in the political sphere could be due to a lack of interest. Only 24 percent of the Chinese Communist Party’s 80 million members are women. In a country where the most powerful women in history have pulled the strings from behind the scenes, involvement in mainstream politics may not be an attractive proposition. “Fewer women are interested in politics,” says Hai. But that doesn’t mean they don’t wield political influence. “In China, we have wife or madam politics,” she says, meaning women shape the political decisions of their husbands from behind the curtain. Still, only 10 women sit on the 204-member Communist Party Central Committee, meaning it’s 4.9 percent female. That’s exactly the same as the previous council, and a drop from the one before that, which had 13 women.

China’s retirement policy is also rigged against women, with the retirement age for female civil servants pegged at 55 — five years younger than men. With China’s Politburo members ranging in age from 55 to 69, there is a sense that by the time female politicians reach an age where senior roles become a reality, the expected age of retirement has come and gone. Some, such as Sun Chunlan, have worked around this. But for most, the expectation that their careers will last half a decade less than those of their male colleagues is a huge obstacle to political ambitions.

There is also an emerging argument in China that the country’s brightest and most ambitious are choosing careers in business over politics as a result of the crackdown on government corruption. In the past, the relatively low wages politicians are paid — as an example, President Xi Jinping’s monthly salary increased 62 percent to 11,385 yuan ($1,832) in 2015 — could be supplemented by kickbacks. But this revenue stream has dried up in recent years. As professional opportunities continue to open for women in China, there is little financial incentive for them to try to overcome the hurdles and break into the political world. 

Both the lack of senior female politicians and the growth of opportunities for women in other areas look set to continue. Despite a trend toward more female politicians in Asia as a whole, the erosion of traditional gender roles in China is likely to see more women steering corporations than captaining the state.