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Rise of the gender revolution

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Originally published by the Australian Institute of Company Directors in its INTdirector magazine 10.13 By Duncan Calder

“Women hold up half the sky” was one of the most famous sayings of Chairman Mao.

But for China, it is more than a saying, it is an insight into the thinking of the leader of the People’s Republic of China after its founding in 1949. Thinking that saw a change in traditional gender roles, with Chinese women being granted equal rights to men in all aspects of political, economic, cultural, social and family life.

“China now boasts more self made female billionaires than any other country in the world. Indeed, a recent Forbes rich list showed that half of the world’s self-made female billionaires are China born entrepreneurs.”

In 1949, Chinese women made up just 7.5 percent of the workforce. By the end of 2010, this had increased to 43 percent.

China is different to many emerging economies, which are often strongly patriarchal. Chinese women sit front and centre in Chinese society, in Chinese business and, increasingly in Chinese politics.
Just before International Women’s Day last year, one posting on Sina Weibo (China’s twitter equivalent) became very popular.

“If you depend on your parents, you would be a princess, if you depend on men, you would be the wife of a prince, if you depend on yourself, you would be a queen”.

This positive, assertive thinking is increasingly common in China.

The presence of women in Chinese politics is upward trending. Women accounted for 23 percent of the 2,270 delegates at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Women in the United States make up just 17 percent of its political leaders.

China’s women are also blazing a trail in the world of business. The economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s have produced expansion in

the private sector and a surge in entrepreneurship. Many Chinese women have seized this opportunity.
A recent survey by an international accounting firm showed that mainland Chinese women topped the world in terms of holding senior business management roles, with 51 percent of senior management roles in mainland companies being held by women, compared to just 20 percent in the US. 19 percent in the UK and Japan at 7 percent.

A separate survey by Mastercard found that mainland women were also well represented in business, with 41 female business owners to every 100 male owners, placing China third in the Asia-Pacific region behind only Australia (51:100) and New Zealand (42:100).

And a large number of these Chinese businesswomen are increasingly amassing huge fortunes.
China now boasts more self-made female billionaires than any other country in the world. Indeed, a recent Forbes rich list showed that half of the world’s self-made female billionaires are China born entrepreneurs.

Women like Zhang Xin, who was born in poverty in Beijing, used books for pillows as a child and who went on to study at Cambridge University and subsequently founded the Soho China real estate empire and become one of Forbes’ 50 most powerful women in the world.

But like for many Western women, Chinese women still have a way to go to achieve equality across all gender measures.

The All China Women’s Federation (ACWF) leads the charge in China to protect women’s rights and interests and promote equality between men and women. With 60,000 federations at the township level it is a formidable organisation.

There is great opportunity for ACWF and Australian bodies
like the Australian Institute of Company Directors and ACBC and for Chinese women and Western women to share ideas and to work together to advance the cause of women. After all, China is home to one fifth of all the women on the planet! Promoting gender equality in China can affect more women positively than it could in any other nation.

Of course we are seeing terrific progress and development in mutual understanding. This is fed by the increasing numbers of Chinese students here in Australia who are keeping our education industry viable and in the hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists to Australia who spend more money here than tourists from any other country.

We have much more in common with China than we sometimes think and certainly the women of China and the women of Australia have much in common.

Some Australians are a little fearful of China because it is different to our traditional Anglo- Saxon trading and investment partners. This fear is sometimes played out in xenophobic reporting of Chinese investment in the Australian media. This fear is unnecessary and unhelpful to the promotion of trade and deeper bilateral engagement between Australia and China.

“Some Australians are a little fearful of China because it is different to our traditional Anglo-Saxon trading and investment partners. This fear is sometimes played out in xenophobic reporting of Chinese investment in the Australian media.”

The best way, the only way, to overcome that fear is to increase the level of people-to-people exchanges between Australian people and Chinese people. For us to get to understand one another better.
Organisations like the ACBC and Company Directors are committed to helping Australian women to link up with Chinese women to support each other and build further bridges between our two peoples, our two cultures.

Duncan Calder is Senior National Vice President for the Australia China Business Council and was the Founding National Chairman of KPMG Australia’s China Business Practice. He specialises in Sino-Australian deals.

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