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Dispelling gender discrimination myths in Asian business

Many hold the belief that China is still a male-only playing field in the business world, while in actuality, times have changed.

“Heavy Man, Light Woman”

I remember when I first learned the concept of the “son-preference phenomenon.” My Chinese teacher was adamant about drilling into our Western minds the concept of gender discrimination and how it applies to all walks of life in China, including business. In her defense, she was trying to prepare us for a life overseas, albeit a life from the 80’s.

We understood these grand ideas of China being a patriarchal society and the impacts of the “Family Planning Policy,” but what we didn’t realize was just how much of the ancient ideologies were falling by the wayside as more and more Chinese were not only being educated overseas but were emulating the Western life.

How the Cultural Revolution Catapulted Chinese Feminism

What many foreigners don’t know is that prior to China’s “Open Door” policy of the 1980s, China has had a very strong feminist agenda since the “Great Leap Forward,” a precursor to the “Cultural Revolution” in the 1950s. Economic changes were just the tip of the iceberg. Many social changes were introduced that drastically changed China practically over night (or at least over the course of a decade).

The “Great Leap Forward” was just that, and it ushered in new concepts such as the importance of female education (even in rural countrysides), increased female voice and rights (freedom to divorce at will), refusal to practice foot-binding, and sexual freedoms that were previously frowned upon.

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My favorite quotes from Mao’s “Little Red Book” can be found in chapter 31-the Chapter on women. Quotations such “Men and women are equal” and “Women hold up half the sky” found as early as 1949 show that the socialist and communist ideologies bolstered equality for women not only in society but also in the workplace.

Girls compete, too!

We all see how Chinese women dominate sports at the Olympics (gymnastics, swimming, badminton, etc.), but women are being elevated to equal standing as men in the workplace. Just last Friday, the first Chinese woman astronaut returned from space. Granted, China is still male-dominated in terms of executive level employees, like most countries are. But with the remaining feminism from the cultural revolution, it is common to see women in management positions abroad.

In my own personal experiences in working in China, I was able to see firsthand how my own antiquated ideas from high school Chinese class were hindering my success. While there is still much debate about foreign women having more freedoms than local women, the fact still remains that women can and do compete in the current Chinese business landscape.

On more than one occasion, I have been welcomed to business dinners by being offered the “seat of importance” or offered baijiu* and cigarettes (normally in social settings reserved for men). It’s important to keep in mind that just as you would see a female VP or bank executive in the states, chances are that you’ll run into more of them in China merely due to scale and population size. While gender roles are still present, women do in fact still hold up half the sky alongside men.

Key takeaways

Gender discrimination and gender roles should not be confused. Prominent gender roles still exist (nurturing mothers, working fathers, social responsibility, etc) but women and men have equality in the work space.

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*baijiu – “white liquor” typically made from rice with a higher alcohol content than vodka

Written By

Monica Moffitt, founder and Principal Cultural Consultant at Tianfen Consulting, Inc., has traveled the world and enjoys linguistics and all things culture. Having split her career between project management and business analytics, Monica merges logic, fluency in Chinese and creativity in her new role as cultural consultant. She received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies/Chinese from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Business Administration (International Management and Marketing) from University of Texas at Dallas.

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