Leading the Way for Working Women: What America Can Learn from China


Hilary Clinton and Madame Chen Zhili

China, for many decades, has been viewed in the eyes of its Western counterparts as lagging, traditional, and for lack of a better word, un-egalitarian. That is, until the last couple of years. China is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But what often comes off as a surprise is that China is leading in achieving gender equality at work more than any other country across the world. Although mainland China has much to learn from its Western counterparts in many other regards, we cannot ignore that China boasts the highest percentage of women in senior management roles across the globe, at 51%, with the United States lagging behind at 20% [1].

By this standard, China is arguably one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, and for good reasons. The main reasons can be attributed to its government policies and the societal perception of women in China.

Under Mao ZeDong’s presidency in the 1940’s, the People’s Republic of China was established, and along with it, the active promotion of reaching gender equality between men and women. It was Mao’s commitment to gender equality which significantly improved both women’s roles and status in China. Mao’s famous words, “women hold up half the sky,” are truly reflected in China’s labor force, 46% of which is comprised of women, a percentage higher than numerous Western countries [2] and again, enforces China’s egalitarianism.

China’s implementation of these institutional gender-equality policies and regimes has consequently altered its people’s historically outdated perceptions of women, though of course, still an ongoing endeavor. Much of the gender inequality issue is rooted in society’s traditional, cultural perceptions of women and hence needs to be extinguished on a higher level through implementing efficacious government policies.

As a result of China’s long-initiated and ongoing efforts to create an egalitarian society, both men and women in China are more likely to favor gender quotas as opposed to other countries around the world. According to Grant Thorton’s International Business Report, 72% of Chinese respondents favor board quotas for large corporations, significantly higher than the 37% who favour them globally (and globally, 55% flat-out do not support quotas) [1]. While meritocracy should not be compromised (market efficiency is of utmost importance), we as a society need to recognize that there are many current institutional barriers preventing women from being promoted and that empirical data attest the benefits of having more women in influential, executive roles of organizations. It is well-known that when both a man and a woman are equally qualified, the man is more likely to be chosen, all else being equal.  As such, having reasonable quotas would counteract society’s tendency to hire men over equally qualified women. What’s more, institutions are also acutely aware that having more women in leadership roles leads to a better bottom line–this has been long established by numerous consulting firms [3]. To facilitate the increased ascendance of women to top leadership positions, we need to be less uncomfortable with employing rational quotas, for the time being, when there are clear benefits that do not frustrate the goal of improving a company’s revenues or maintaining efficient markets.

China is already light years ahead of the United States and many other parts of the world with respect to gender equality in the corporate world. It’s time for us to open-handedly embrace and execute the spirit of Mao Zedong’s famous words today, that women really do hold up half the sky, in both our governments and in our business organizations.


Heidi Hu

University of Waterloo


[1] Grant Thorton International Business Report 2013 (report) http://www.grantthornton.ie/db/Attachments/IBR2013_WiB_report_final.pdf

[2]  The Economist (article) http://www.economist.com/node/21539931

[3] Deloitte – The Gender Divide (report) http://www.deloitte.com/investinginwomen

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