Top female entrepreneurs are a minority in China, as compared to male tycoons, but there are certainly examples of very successful Chinese businesswomen. Of the 20 richest individuals in China, three are self-made female billionaires. (Meanwhile, of the 20 richest Americans, none are self-made businesswomen.) Despite this strong female showing at the top, for most women navigating China’s business landscape, the obstacles to success and equality are steep—and growing steeper.
Consider the yawning gender pay gap. In 2012, American women earned 77¢ for every $1 men earned. China had a similar pay gap two decades ago: In 1990, urban Chinese women earned 78 percent of what their male peers earned, and rural women earned 79 percent. Disappointingly, the pay gap in China has grown much wider since then: In 2010, urban Chinese women earned 67 percent of what their male peers earned, and rural women earned 56 percent. These calculations were released Wednesday by the government-led All China Women’s Federation.
What explains China’s growing pay disparity? Wang Xiaolin, director of research at the International Poverty Reduction Center in China, told the People’s Daily that women more often chose to work in less lucrative industries. “Many female migrant workers stay at the low end of the service sector, such as working as waitresses in restaurants, while men take more positions in the manufacturing industry.” While this may be true, Wang’s explanation doesn’t sufficiently address the obstacles that college-educated professional women confront.
One hurdle may be the particular nature of China’s modern business landscape, which emphasizes guanxi—stoking a web of interlocking personal and professional connections. “Guanxi itself is such a male world,” explains Susan Brownell, an anthropologist specializing in China at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. “Businessmen go to KTV bars and often patronize prostitutes together. It’s hard for women to share the same bonding experiences.” That’s why at least one successful female business owner, bowing to the fact that male clients expect to be wined and dined at karaoke bars and massage parlors (where there is at least the possibility of paying for sex), has designated a young man on her staff to take out clients on her behalf. Her solution is crafty, but it’s a depressing form of accommodation. “Successful women in China must develop tactics to handle the male aspects of guanxi,” says Brownell.
According to the All China Federation of Trade Unions, the percentage of women on corporate boards is also declining. In 2005, women occupied 43 percent of board seats, compared to just 32 percent in 2011. Many Chinese women are also dropping out of the work force when they have children and then finding it hard to reenter. 63 percent of Chinese women work outside the home in their twenties, but only 56 percent do in their thirties. (Meanwhile, 93 percent of Chinese men participate in the labor force in their thirties.)
While many aspects of Chinese society have become more progressive over the past three decades, gender relations have not shown obvious advances. As Leta Hong Fincher, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Tsinghua University, wrote in a recent issue of Dissent magazine: “For all its failings, the Mao era (1949–1976) was a time when overcoming traditional forms of male-female inequality was proclaimed as an important revolutionary goal. Now, there are signs that women’s past gains are being eroded.” Just as with corporate boards, women’s representation in elite Chinese politics has been steadily declining. “The proportion of women in China’s Communist Party Central Committee has fallen over the years—[now] down to just 4.9 percent,” writes Fincher. There’s no sign yet of China’s Sheryl Sandberg or a citizen “Lean In” movement.