The Women of China

My home in Beijing (They call them villas here.) is an investment property owned by a successful Chinese couple. (This is commonplace. Real estate is the investment of choice in China.) And because the house was being renovated during the early days of my assignment here I went back to view it several times prior to making a commitment. And on each occasion I met with the husband, who was both easy-going and fluent in English.

Although my wife and daughters were still living in the U.S. at the time we eventually agreed that this was a house we could call home and I informed the realtor accordingly. And she, in turn, arranged a meeting with the landlord to negotiate the final deal and sign the paperwork.

"In China the women handle the money."
“In China the women handle the money.”

When I showed up on this last occasion, however, it was the wife, not the husband, who met with me. I was certainly okay with that but I was curious to know the reason for the change in players, particularly given the immediately obvious fact that the woman spoke little English. So I took the realtor aside in search of an explanation. And she explained, with more than a hint of exasperation, “Now you’re talking money. Before you were just looking. In China the women handle the money.”

And in the years since I have generally found that to be true. A lot of the products my company produces and sells are sold through distributors, many of which are small, private husband and wife teams. And with few exceptions it is the husband’s role to establish and maintain the personal relationships that are so critical to business in China while the wife handles the books, the banking, and the buying. Most of these men, I suspect, are literally clueless when it comes to how much money they or their companies actually have.

This is not a new development. When I traveled through Asia meeting with suppliers more than 25 years ago I don’t recall ever meeting with a single woman with a seat at the table of decision-making in most of the countries I visited. The meetings tended to involve a lot of people at different levels of the organization but all were men. (I actually recall one occasion when a female executive traveling with my team was asked to remain in the hotel while the men went out to dinner. And the request came not as a result of the activities planned. Our hosts simply didn’t know how to deal with her presence.)

Following the revolution of 1949 Mao Zedong and his followers knew it would take the hard work of men and women alike to build their socialist utopia.
Following the revolution of 1949 Mao Zedong and his followers knew it would take the hard work of men and women alike to build their socialist utopia.

In Hong Kong, by contrast, (Mainland China was not accessible to foreign business at the time.), the companies tended to be family affairs where the matriarch and the daughters played prominent roles in all meetings and social activities. The daughter(s), in fact, would often take the lead when it came time to negotiate price.

Mao Zedong, himself, famously noted, “Women hold up half the sky,” and advocated, therefore, equal pay for equal work. The rights of women, in fact, are explicitly protected in the Chinese constitution.

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China:

Article 48. Women in the People’s Republic of China enjoy equal rights with men in all spheres of life, political, economic, cultural and social, and family life. The state protects the rights and interests of women, applies the principle of equal pay for equal work for men and women alike and trains and selects cadres from among women.

While few countries can match China’s record for gender neutrality, however, there clearly remain further opportunities for improvement. While women certainly occupy positions of great power in the Chinese government, no woman has ever served on the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee which rules the China Communist Party and only 5% of the Central Committee are women although it must be noted that the overall parliamentary representation of women in China is higher than in the U.S. Congress.

And the culture remains largely patriarchal. By custom and tradition the men are often granted the final word (at least that’s what they are allowed to think) and the best seat at the dinner table. (Due to the group-dining orientation of all Chinese cuisine, of course, dining tables are invariably round, so there is no ‘head of the table’ per se. There is, however, still a protocol as to who sits where.)

Half of all university graduates are women and every woman pursues a career commensurate with her education and interests.
Half of all university graduates are women and every woman pursues a career commensurate with her education and interests.

Nonetheless, women have made more advances here than in many Western countries, including my own. Of my own senior management team, precisely half are women, as are half of the graduates from China’s universities each year.

Nearly all women have careers. As a practical matter, stay-at-home-mothering is just not an option financially. Live-in grandparents typically provide childcare and household support (e.g. cooking).

And contrary to the tradition of dowries, wherein the bride’s family provides assets to support the bride in her marriage, it is the young men of China who are expected to provide ‘red envelopes’ (literally red envelopes stuffed with cash) to their potential in-laws to prove their ability to provide for their future family. (Remember that older adults generally rely on their adult children for their retirement support, giving the process of accepting a husband for your daughter not unlike ‘due diligence’ in the mergers and acquisitions world. And, of course, future in-law red envelope values are soaring due to both the high cost of housing in China and the gender-bias of birth rates influenced by the One Child policy, which has actually created a shortage of potential brides in some rural areas.)

Young male suitors are expected to give red envelopes of cash to potential in-laws to demonstrate their financial stability.  And the price is rising along with the price of real estate.
Young male suitors are expected to give red envelopes of cash to potential in-laws to demonstrate their financial stability. And the price is rising along with the price of real estate.

While China has a long history of literary excellence when it comes to love, therefore, marriage here, it strikes me, is approached more pragmatically than in the West. Young women of marital age, or so I’m told by my Chinese friends and colleagues, tend to waste little time on relationships that are unlikely to lead to marriage – love or lust aside. And even on initial dates young women are likely to ask very direct questions about income, job security, debt, and investments. “Do you have a car?” “Do you have any debts?” “How much do you earn?” “And how stable is your employer?”

For every yang there is a yin, of course, and China’s marital customs are no exception. Young women are under great family pressure to marry before they become too old – what is colloquially referred to as ‘a leftover woman’ – to the point that there is actually a market for boyfriend rentals – a young man with a good job to take home over the Spring Festival holiday to get your over-bearing parents to back down a bit.

And, of course, it’s always difficult to draw the line between accepted custom and institutional oppression when it comes to matters of gender. There’s little question that there are statistical gender-biases among certain professions. Women are over-represented in the service industries and under-represented in the top ranks of the largest state-owned enterprises, although I hasten to add that I have met female plant managers in China and I have yet to come across a single one in the U.S.

On balance, therefore, as the father of two young daughters I don’t hesitate to say that I am very pleased with the role models Chinese women provide for them. While the women may not rule the roost at every level, they do control the money and that in itself goes a long way toward insuring equality of treatment and opportunity.

And the dragon ladies of lore? Well, I have found a universal confidence among the women of China that is refreshingly genuine and well-grounded. They are more likely to be aggressive than coy when engaging male colleagues and I have to admit that when I make a trip to the local markets to shop I consciously avoid the female sales staff when it comes time to negotiate a price. They, in my experience, tend to be much tougher negotiators.

If anything, in fact, I believe that the men of China are more than a little afraid of the women. And I mean that with all sincerity. Bravado aside, when the women speak, the men listen; or cower, as the case may be.

Dragons or not, the women definitely do hold up half the sky here. And even if the men hold up the colorful half that the rainbow passes through, the women have the half with the actual gold. The reverse, I think, of what you find in many Western cultures where the women get the pretty and the men still hold the power.

I want my daughters to learn to stand up for themselves.  And there are plenty of excellent role models among the women of China.
I want my daughters to learn to stand up for themselves. And there are plenty of excellent role models among the women of China.

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Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.