In June China launched its first woman into space, becoming only the third country to do so itself.
That Chinese women are becoming astronauts is no real surprise, and in many ways the Chinese space program is now reflecting the success of their sisters in most areas of society, including business. Here, Chinese women play major and expanding roles, from working as senior executives in leading companies to talented entrepreneurs heading start-ups. Business in China may traditionally have been a man’s world, but this is changing steadily.
Earlier this year, 21 women from Greater China (mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau) made Forbes’ inaugural list of Asia’s “50 Power Business Women”. India had eight, Singapore five, South Korea and Indonesia four each, Japan three and Australia two. (Incidentally, the only Thai woman on the list was Khun Yuwadee Chirathivat of Central Department Store.)
Zhang Xin, co-founder and CEO of SOHO, Beijing’s biggest property developer was one of the honourees. A Cambridge graduate with wealth of $3.3 billion, she spent her teens working in garment factories in Hong Kong. Others include: Cheung Yan, co-founder and Chairwoman of Nine Dragons Paper, which makes packaging materials in China by recycling wastepaper imported from the US; Dong Mingzhu, President of China’s Gree Electric Appliances, who transformed the domestic brand into the world’s largest maker of air conditioners; and Sun Yafang, who advanced through the executive ranks to become Chairwoman of Huawei Technologies, one of the world’s leading suppliers of telecom equipment.
These of course are the women right at the top of the corporate tree. Their rise to power took time, reflecting China’s economic reforms of the early 1980s and the gradual transition to a market economy, which was accompanied by an increased emphasis on entrepreneurship as an essential component of economic growth. Many women, especially the better educated, have been able to seize the opportunities afforded by the new economic climate.
Today, women are estimated to represent more than 20 per cent of all entrepreneurs in China, although most of the businesses they run are micro, small or medium-sized enterprises. The country is said to boast more businesswomen (300 million) than the entire population of the US.
Challenges remain of course. Studies suggest that businesses owned by women are less likely than those run by men to find the resources and support they need to grow into larger enterprises. And while there are outstanding women at the top, we still see significantly less participation by women in the largest corporations, especially at executive level.
Income differentials and urban-rural divides are also apparent. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s 2010 Asia-Pacific Human Development Report, China’s average female wage is two-thirds that of the average male, and while women make up 65 per cent of the labour force in rural areas, they represent only 1-2 per cent of local decision-makers. Clearly, there is still much to be done, but as the recent experience of astronaut Major Liu Yang illustrates, Chinese women can aspire to great heights.
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