Mao Zedong may have famously proclaimed that "women hold up half the sky," but many of today's Chinese career women feel their high-flying ambitions have feet of clay. "Yeah, we hold up half the sky," recently quipped a female senior manager for a multinational pharmaceutical company, "but there are 5,000 years of history dragging us back."
She and more than 125 representatives of multinational and Chinese-based corporations gathered in Beijing recently to learn the results of a new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy. But even as the conference celebrated the many strengths highly qualified Chinese women bring to their employers, participants were quick to identify the forces that threaten the full utilization of this vital tranche of talent.
"There's a huge price to pay for family values," observed Cezary Statuch, Vice President of Medical Emerging Markets at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Every woman in China knows that being a good daughter or daughter-in-law unquestionably trumps satisfying personal career ambitions, no matter how successful that career may be. "In our culture, we take care of our parents," says one executive in the financial sector. "Whenever they need me, I will be there" — whether that means relocating to be near them (as this woman plans to do), taking a less-stimulating job to free up time to spend with them, or leaving the workforce entirely.
Among the more than 1,000 Chinese women surveyed by the CWLP, 95% already have elder care responsibilities. Every woman interviewed knows someone who put her career on hold to care for an aging relative. Adeline Wong's story is typical. When her mother and aunt fell ill a few years ago, Wong left her job with one of the top venture capital firms in Taiwan. "It was a very good career, but I quit and spent several months taking care of them."
More than half (58%) of Chinese women also provide financial support to their parents or in-laws — an average of 18% of their annual income, the CWLP data show. In China, where state support for the elderly can't keep up with the soaring cost of living, contributions from adult children aren't just appreciated. They are necessary.
The pressure of being a good daughter or daughter-in-law can be crushing: "daughterly guilt" affects an extraordinary 88% of the women surveyed. Adding to a high-achieving woman's burden, China's one-child policy, implemented in 1979, means that women in their twenties, thirties, and early forties have no siblings to share the load. China's rapidly aging society will only intensify the problem.
It's not just elder care that's impacting Chinese women. Motherhood amplifies the issues. Many women are like Julia Zhu, a senior manager with Sodexo China, who drops off her two-year-old daughter with her in-laws every Sunday evening and picks her up on Friday. "Of course, I miss the chance to be with my daughter, but working mothers have to focus more on work," she says stoically. Still, despite such pragmatism, even very ambitious women acknowledge feeling torn between their career and their child: 86% feel maternal guilt.
Pully Chau, Chairman and CEO of Greater China Draftfcb, claims that Chinese women have what she calls "a cultural inheritance for multitasking." She says, "We're used to being good moms, good daughters, and good leaders. That makes us able to sustain high performance in tough times." Still, she concedes, "we need the little compromises."
The rapid pace of change in China offers an opportunity for forward-thinking companies to gain competitive advantage with female-friendly policies. Among the suggestions and solutions aired by conference attendees:
Flextime is still relatively unknown in China. One way to remove the stigma associated with flexible work arrangements, suggests Rosalind Hudnell, Chief Diversity Office Director for Intel, is to detach it from working mothers and telecommuters, and apply "intermittent flextime" that could apply as much to someone whose job entails late-night telephone calls to California as to someone dealing with ailing elders.
Flexible career paths would also be a huge help to women torn between career and family care, added Denice Kronau, Siemens' Chief Diversity Officer. Right now, re-entry opportunities after taking a break are nonexistent; women sadly joke that the chance of finding a job after dropping out of the market is even smaller than that of finding a wealthy husband.
Get the entire family involved in the woman's career, suggests Bessie Lee, CEO of GroupM China. Her company regularly invites family members to show-and-tell sessions about the work environment. Such events demystify the woman's work and emphasize the message that what she is doing is valuable and worthwhile.
China's educated women have a tremendous amount to offer their employers, but their full potential will not be realized unless employers recognize and take steps to relieve the forces that constrain their careers.
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