Rise of the gender revolution

Originally published by the Australian Institute of Company Directors in its INTdirector magazine

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.