Mao Zedong famously said that “Women hold up half the sky”, and since the beginning of the PRC the Communist Party have maintained a strict policy of gender equality. Dealings with Chinese professionals here will lead you to encounter impressive managers and entrepreneurs of both genders, and women are not remotely shy about stating their opinions; you’re unlikely to see them defer to men.
Urban women are not expected to stay home and mind the house, and the vast majority of urban couples both work – in this context, the one-child policy has made this a straightforward option. Men are expected to do their part, and it’s extremely cheap to have a live-in child carer, who will often cook and clean into the bargain. Also, one or both parents may live with them already, or move in for a period of time to help raise the child. Certainly, any woman with a professional office career can afford this – they are likely to get more sleep than many Western mothers. The majority go back to work after giving birth, and there is paid maternity leave of three or four months (depending on age).
We should point out the difference between urban and rural society here. In the countryside, wives are far more likely to be in charge of the household and do all the cooking, cleaning and child raising, while husbands do the farm work. In general it’s a far more traditional ethos of division of labor, and of course with no hired childcare.
Beijing is a magnet for ambitious young professionals of both genders, as well as the headquarters for many of the company’s biggest firms, and government departments abound, of course. This means that there are plenty of successful women here, and their status manifests itself in everything from a strong position in the marriage market to public displays of anger at recalcitrant husbands, and means they expect and demand to be treated appropriately by their male colleagues and managers.
With these cultural tendencies in place, Beijing is a good place to be a professional women. And yet, scratch beneath the surface and a more nuanced picture emerges. State companies and bureaucracy may be staffed by both men and women, but the top of the pyramid is massively male-dominated. (This can be seen in politics, too – 40 percent of government officials are women, and only 20 percent of the National People’s Congress.) There’s a thriving and barely hidden tradition of mistresses, visits to KTV venues that degenerate into sordid behavior and sexual harassment. It’s far more difficult for women to report the latter than in the West, and the boss with money and position taking his young secretary out to dinner and then making advances can generally expect few negative consequences.
A female foreigner doing business here can expect to be free from the above – being from overseas will take her out of the usual pattern, as does the fact that overseas professionals are often in middle- to upper-management roles. There can be a huge difference between foreign companies with Western management, private companies with sophisticated local managers and government firms that are more set in their ways – though, of course, there is poor practice and strong standards in every type of company. She can expect to be seen primarily as a foreigner and treated accordingly, rather than as a woman first. This has its own advantages and drawbacks.
The most prominent professional association for women in Beijing is Viva Beijing Professional Women’s Network.