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The Rise of Female Entrepreneurs in China

20 September 2017

Jennifer Lai, Managing Partner and Head of North Asia, Henley & Partners Hong Kong

In March 2017 — to coincide with International Women’s Day — Forbes announced a list of the richest self-made women in the world. The list included 56 women, up from 42 the year before, whose collective wealth is an astounding USD 129.1 billion. Of the list’s 56 entries, 21 were from China and 5 were from the Hong Kong Special Administration Region (HKSAR). In addition, for the first time ever, Vietnam and Japan were also represented, reflecting the general increase in wealth among female Asian entrepreneurs.

Six out of the top ten on the Forbes list are from China and HKSAR. This is somewhat startling, considering that just a few decades ago the concept of a ‘female entrepreneur’ was almost unheard of in China’s social and cultural milieu. From the broader social awareness of gender to conservative perspectives concerning gender roles, the focus of a woman’s life has typically been pre-determined for her as commitment to family duties rather than an interest in social responsibility and leadership. Of course this remains the case in many parts of the world, with women often being relegated to a ‘secondary’ status, as described by French writer, intellectual, and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.

Chinese culture does not intrinsically encourage and cultivate women to pursue business careers or interests; in fact, the opposite may be more descriptive of the status quo. The dominant etiquette in which the father, husband, or son acts as the representative of a woman is the manifestation and expression of this status in China. This creates many difficulties for Chinese women, for example when it comes to the inheritance of their family’s wealth, as parents tend to pass on their inheritance to their male heir, the traditional bearer of the family’s torch.

There is no doubt, then, that commercial work that requires women to be in the spotlight is in conflict with the traditional Chinese female gender role and status. It is not difficult to comprehend that women who wish to survive in the business environment or become leaders in the business field face significant social obstacles and a general deficit of recognition. Despite this, the liberation of Chinese women has advanced, and the years from 1949 to 1978 can be regarded as the time when the idea of gender equality seeped into mainstream ideology and rhetoric; it was in this period that women began to show their strength more clearly in social productive labor. Further, during the time of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), concepts such as ‘iron maiden’ were some of the strongest manifestations of the equality of men and women and the subversion of the traditional image of women.

The growth in momentum of the feminist movement in Europe and the US towards the end of the 19th century provided much theoretical support for the enlightenment, empowerment, and liberation of women in China. In the decades since then, China’s grassroots understanding of gender constructs has been increasingly affected by the socio-economic development of women’s roles both locally and abroad, as well as the advocacy of equal rights for women internationally. Locals have begun to develop a more tolerant and motivated attitude towards women’s participation in society and/or business.

Female entrepreneur associations and clubs began emerging in China from the 1980s, and this provided female entrepreneurs with better conditions for mutual cooperation and the exchange of experience and contacts. In business, women’s wages have increased from being 60% of men’s wages in 1975 to 78% in 2010. A 2011 study listed 20 self-made wealthy women with wealth of more than USD 1 billion; this increased by a factor of four by 2017, reflecting the further expansion and recognition of women’s abilities in business leadership.

The development of the business profile of Chinese women is also attributable, to some extent, to the general increase in the level of education received by Chinese women thanks to China’s one-child policy. In 2013, over 50% of students enrolled in Master’s degree studies were female. Women have been able to receive more concentrated investment in their education and professional ambitions from their elders as the only child, thus boosting their ability to demand more favorable treatment from employers. Equally, family expectations of these individuals are higher. “The first generation to emerge from this policy is now in its professional prime. As the only child in the family, these individuals have a responsibility to make something of their career, regardless of gender,” comments Rose Zhou, acting managing partner at Grant Thornton China.

According to a Credit Suisse Research Institute report on a six year-long study of companies with a global market value of more than USD 1 billion, companies with female members on the board of directors had a 26% higher stock price than those without. Companies with at least three female members on the board of directors boasted 66% higher capital gains and a 53% higher return on net assets than companies that had no female members on their board. In addition, Prof. Winnie Qian Peng of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology reported that during the 2008 financial crisis, companies with female members on their board of directors performed better, further building the case for gender-balanced management.

It is generally believed that the character traits of female entrepreneurs make them more adept at flexible management, which not only facilitates transactions and cooperation, but also reduces transaction and management costs and risk while increasing organizational cohesion. Recently, business management has begun to value interpersonal relationships, equality, and respect even more; rigid management that focuses on control and power no longer enjoys mainstream popularity. In contrast, the meticulousness, gentleness and communication skills of women have become advantages that are indispensable to their overall strength. A case in point is Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Female Chinese entrepreneurs undoubtedly have large room for development, considering that only 31% of senior positions are held by women; however, they are certainly on the right track to living up to the Chinese proverb that “women hold up half the sky”.