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Whitepaper on Women in Management: How should Western companies in China approach under-representation?

In China, women are underrepresented in corporate leadership roles.  Despite a high labor force participation overall (63.7%, Worldbank), only 8.9% of corporate managers in China are women.  Compare that number to that of the United States, where approximately 20% of corporate managers are women.  The good news for China is that even at 8.9%, Chinese women are slightly better represented in management than in other Asian countries such as India and Japan.  However, since China’s post-secondary education institutions graduate as many women as men, the low percentage is surprising and certainly indicates that highly educated women face barriers to career growth.  The unequal representation that is noticeable in private corporations is even more obvious in government and governmental organizations.

Chinese women possess a wealth of education, qualification, experience, and managerial talent.  Strong female entrepreneurs and corporate board members are innovative, intuitive, ambitious, and dedicated.  They make strategic decisions and use vision to create profitable companies. If the names Zhou Qunfei, Wu Yajun, and Liu Qing (a COO, mother of three, and breast cancer survivor) are yet unfamiliar to you, then a quick search on Google or Baidu will yield remarkable success stories.  Western businesses operating in China should seek out eager, unrealized leadership talent within the female population – there certainly is plenty.

Moreover, the hiring of talented women managers will also support Western businesses’ ethical standards as a direct response to gender inequality.  In 2020, to do otherwise – that is, to perpetuate the status quo – is irresponsible. 

Holding Ethical Ground on Foreign Soil

Western businesses operating on foreign soil have an ethical obligation to stakeholders at home to uphold accountability, equality, and fairness. Western businesses in China should guard against permitting a culture of gender inequality to thrive, even though it is locally acceptable. The gender rights-, feminist-, and #MeToo movements are quick to blow the whistle on companies that shirk ethical duties.  Companies that violate ethical norms while operating overseas risk a disapproving response from their consumers, investors, and employees. Since social media can escalate a few negative responses into public outrage, negligent management of corporate ethics has that potential to irreparably damage brand profitability.

Ethically-responsible companies in the West freely align themselves with activists and social causes.  In the political environment of China, however, this is unpragmatic. Western businesses should avoid aligning themselves with activists or making official statements (whether online, at home, or abroad) about government policies, for doing so may hinder business interests and create red tape. The government of China should not be expected to respond favorably to foreign interference that damages its reputation as a competent champion of equality in the workforce.

Inequality: It’s Ancient History

Avoiding activism and political statements are not the only considerations for a firm looking to promote values of equality and fairness. Good intentions –  even those that unite private and humanitarian interests – do not guarantee good business practices.  Policies that are effective in the West may not be effective in China. 

An understanding of China’s unique historical and cultural challenges is essential prior to implementing changes in HR policies and hierarchy.  Effective communication with employees about corporate ethics of equality depends upon it.  In the case that HR policies and codes of equality are implemented without cultural understanding, they might be ignored as being confusing, idealistic, or worse – insultingly colonialist.

Back in the Dao

Daoism is an ancient Chinese religion or philosophy that explains the universe as a product of two driving forces – yīn and yáng.  These two forces are contradictory and yet equally important, working in harmony to create all objects and events. (Western religions, in contrast, describe the world as a product of a loving-creator God who is in constant struggle against Evil.  God, who is synonymous with Truth, life, and goodness, will one day defeat Evil, thereby establishing a Kingdom of pure goodness.)

Imagine you’re living in the ancient world.  You look around and see plants growing and weather changing.  Inside yourself, you feel a range of inexplicable emotions.  In short, what you see is that the world around you and within you is always changing.  In the absence of any scientific knowledge, you want to know, “How and why do things change?”

If you were living in ancient Greece, you might deny appearances and say that change is an illusion (as Paramenides and Zeno argued), or, you might theorize that each object contains a natural internal force (an essence) that controls its behavior.  The ancient Chinese devised a different theory of change than those of ancient Greece.  They imagined that two contradictory forces were stretching and contracting to create change, and change was always cyclical. For ancient Chinese people, the interaction between these forces explained the seasons, the fall of rulers, and every other type of change.

Yin-yang symbol

Yīn (阴) and yáng (阳)are the names for the two forces.  Yīn is characterized as cool, stable, receptive, destructive, and submissive; yīn is the “shady side of the mountain”. The simplified Chinese character contains the radical for moon.  Yáng is characterized as hot, active, strong, constructive, and dominant; yáng is the “sunny side of the mountain”. The simplified character contains the radical for sun. Yīn and yáng were applied to complimentary pairs, including men and women; men are yáng and women are yīn.  Both forces are equally important to harmony, although yáng is dominant and yīn is submissive.

The classification of women and men as yīn and yáng serves to organize society, telling us who is naturally suited to lead and to follow. In China, leadership is associated with men, since both leaders and men are typically active, dominant, creative, analytical and dynamic. Since women are classified as yīn, it is natural to assume that the female gender lacks leadership capabilities.

Dao and Confu-sed

Confucian philosophy concretized and moralized the subordination of women in Chinese society, which has remained the status quo ever since. Confucius (孔子 551-479 BCE) wrote little of women specifically, except:

“Women and servants are most difficult to deal with.  If you are familiar with them, they cease to be humble.  If you keep a distance from them, they resent it.” (Analects, 17:25)

Confucius proposed an orderly, stable, well-functioning society reliant on hierarchy and collectivism. Each person must adhere to the specific social role for which he or she is suited and according to gender. Even in modern society, Confucianism as a social institution contributes to stability and social harmony by way of compulsory behaviors, virtues, and rituals.

Women were prescribed the “three obediences”.  In every chapter of her life, she must be submissive to a man. The ideal woman lives a life of obedience:

  1. As an unmarried woman, she must obey her father
  2. When she becomes a wife, she must obey her husband
  3. If she is widowed, she must obey her eldest son (and the next youngest, should the eldest pass away)

The ideal women must express herself in the “four virtues”: feminine speech (fùyán 婦言), feminine modesty/behavior (fùdé 婦德), feminine appearance (fùróng 婦容), and women’s household labor (fùgōng 婦功).

Confucius’s ordering of society effectively solidified widespread Daoist notions of yīn and yáng into inflexible social roles.  Not only were women “naturally” unsuitable for leadership roles – they were forbidden according to propriety (i.e. morality).  Even females who are more yáng in personality could not be tolerated as a leader simply because a woman in leadership is contrary to rules of social order.

Policy Makes Perfect?

When the Communist Party of China won the civil war in 1949, women were suddenly offered an unprecedented degree of social and economic equality. Communist Chairman Mao Zedong famously stated that “women hold up half the sky.”  Women were praised for their contributions to national wealth and encouraged to work outside the home on farms, in factories, and even in military operations. Approximately 16 million women were taught to read, which had before been culturally seen as a threat to women’s obedience to men.

Chinese communism directly and effectively challenged historical thinking that had for centuries declared women to be naturally inferior to men.  Chinese communism is based on the theories of Karl Marx, who, along with his colleague Fredrick Engels, argued that women’s subordination was not the so-called ‘natural order’ of things.  Rather, women’s subordination was a result of class-based societies. Marx and Engels maintained that women were economic beings who were entitled to claim value for their labor and the products of their own labor.

Seventy years later, the official Chinese policy is still equality.  Unfortunately, new social issues have threatened the effective implementation of this policy.  Women’s progress into leadership has been slow and unsatisfactory in comparison to the West. Additionally, there are tensions between the Chinese government and educated Chinese women who subscribe to the Western brand of radical feminist activism as the solution for perceived government inaction. Regardless of the complex domestic dynamics, Western businesses in China should rest assured that workplace equality is officially valued in their Chinese operations.

Profits and People Benefit from Equality

Western businesses operating in China can support local efforts towards equality through in-house human resources policies, training, and codes of ethics. Here are some challenges and best practices:

1. End the “Think Manager – Think Male” phenomenon by introducing structural limitations

“Think manager – think male,” describes the unconscious psychological association of leadership with masculinity.  When asked to list the qualities of a leader, both Chinese men and women tend to describe yáng qualities.  In other words, the act of listing male qualities and listing manager qualities would yield the same list. This is evidence of unconscious masculine bias. Although people report that they do not believe male candidates to be inherently more capable than female candidates, they act in accordance to this unconscious belief.

The implication of unconscious bias is that women are less likely than men to be selected for a management position.  Chinese hiring managers tend to perceive men as more qualified, even when a woman is equally qualified. Moreover, the decision to hire a male manager is supported by Confucian ethics and justifiable as the “right” choice, regardless of a woman’s exceptional qualifications.

A Western company should ask, “Would we be happy to see our ratio of male:female managers published in tomorrow’s headlines?” Consider whether the business should introduce structural limitations to reduce subconscious bias. Structural limitations include the practice of scoring candidates based on quantitative measures or using panel interviews to mitigate extreme biases. Hiring managers must receive training to recognize their own cultural, subconscious bias.

2. Implement Hiring Quotas to interrupt the Is-Ought Fallacy

Our brains use facts about the way things are to tell us about the way things should  be.  In philosophy, this is a type of naturalistic fallacy: “It is this way,” does not logically entail that “It ought-to-be this way.” Businesses operating under this fallacy maintain the historically-determined status quo. Since there are few women in leadership positions in China, companies hire male managers – unwittingly reinforcing realities based on false mental models of leadership and the world.  Furthermore, since fewer women participate in hiring processes, decision making and negotiations, it is less likely that women can promote other capable and qualified women.

Western companies should encourage properly qualified women to apply for leadership positions.  Without women already in management roles, women might also buy into the naturalistic fallacy and therefore not apply to positions they are qualified for.

Management needs to ask, “Is the status quo consistent with our company’s values?” Proactive businesses can interrupt the naturalistic fallacy by strategically implementing hiring quotas.  When women are increasingly present in management positions, they will gain legitimacy in their leadership styles, leadership position and in Chinese society.

3. Un-Gender Leadership Qualities

Women’s unique leadership qualities are misunderstood or overlooked.  Research shows that, at present, neither Chinese men nor women find it easy to regard typically feminine qualities as beneficial for leadership.  In addition, women who do become managers may become “iron women” – regarded as undesirable, unfeminine, sexless and lacking innate female characteristics. Female leaders pay a high emotional cost.

Un-gendered leadership training provided to all levels of company hierarchy can train women and men to understand feminine qualities, such as emotional intelligence and social acuity, as management strengths that promote good work and workplace harmony. Studies show that Chinese women managers identify their management strengths as helpfulness, the ability to understand subordinate mentality, cooperative decision making, and unique perspective of facts and solutions. 

In the IT industry where creativity and autonomy of workers are important, women as mid-level managers can assist in creating a flexible, democratic, and innovative work environment.  Getting the most from talented IT staff is important for improving profits.  Men can also receive training to encourage and integrate advantageous female leadership qualities into their masculine leadership style.

4. Give Promotions based on Qualification and Capability

In China, promotions are sometimes distributed based on guanxi, a type of “strategic friendship”. Cultivating guanxi with management typically requires after hours socializing, sharing meals, drinking alcohol, and karaoke. 

Unfortunately, co-ed socializing is still taboo in cultures within China.  Women are still socially limited by the Confucian virtue of female modesty (fùdé 婦德). Women risk shame and family problems if they come home late after drinking and socializing with male colleagues.  Companies that reward guanxi with promotions may inadvertently encourage problematic co-ed mingling and exclude women from consideration for promotions.

Western businesses should make it policy that promotions are awarded by qualification and capability, not on guanxi.  Because after hours socializing is an ingrained part of Chinese workplace culture, this will require clear policy communication to employees and managers alike, as well as monitoring by upper management.

Closing words

Western businesses operating in China should guard against negligent perpetuation of gender inequality and injustice. The aim is to maintain consistent ethical standards across business locations.  Although the lack of females in leadership roles is the status quo in China, Western businesses should recognize that China’s ambitious, innovative, educated, independent women are capable of leading private corporations to success.  Forbes’ long list of Chinese female businesswomen is evidence of the potential.  Who knows, you might have the next success story in your organization!


Chan, W.-T. (1969). 11 The Yin Yang School. In A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (1st ed., pp. 244–250). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schein, V. E. (2001). “A Global Look at Psychological Barriers to Womens Progress in Management”. Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), 675–688. doi: 10.1111/0022-4537.00235

Schein, V. E. Journal of Social Science Issues, Vol. 57, No.4, 2001, PP 675-688.

The Ethics Centre, & Ethics Centre. (2018, December 12). What is a naturalistic fallacy? The Ethics Centre Article. Retrieved from

Dong, X., & Wang, Y. (2017). “Capacity of female leadership.” Proceedings of the 2017 International Conference on Innovations in Economic Management and Social Science (IEMSS 2017). doi: 10.2991/iemss-17.2017.104 

Do you appreciate in-depth articles like this one? Here’s two you might like: Crash Course: Chinese “contract-less” Contracts vs. Western Contract Culture and Doing Business with Confucius & Lao Tzu

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