In her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg confronts a conundrum. If women earn 57% of college degrees and 60% of master’s degrees – and are now embarking on careers in formerly male-dominated industries in record numbers – why are there not more of them in top-level roles?
To that end, Sandberg advises her gender to ‘lean in’: that is, to take on the career-advancing roles and responsibilities that routinely shoot men to the corporate summit.
“Once we get enough women into leadership, we can break stereotypes down. If you lead, you get to decide,” Sandberg writes.
How about in China, where a growing number of women hold top positions at some of the country’s largest corporations? Will this help to confront gender inequality too?
But here, there’s an interesting twist. Many of these women get senior jobs because they are being groomed to inherit the business once their fathers retire. Although this may not seem to advance the ‘lean in’ agenda in quite the way Sandberg may have meant, these female leaders will have a chance to shape the power structure in the years ahead.
Take Yang Huiyan. The 32 year-old daughter of Country Garden’s founder Yang Guoqiang became the richest woman in China with a net worth of $16 billion after her father, 59, transferred his shares in the Hong Kong-listed property developer to her in 2007. Yang is now the vice chairman at Country Garden while her father manages daily operations. Asked why he had chosen his daughter to be his successor, Yang’s father said, “She is a woman of fine character, hard working and has good corporate leadership qualities.”
China’s richest man Zong Qinghou, founder of Wahaha, 67, has also been preparing his only daughter to take over once he retires. Zong Fuli has been working at Wahaha since 2010. She is also known as a hardworking executive, with a media reputation as “the most diligent princess”. Reportedly, she is the first to arrive at the office in the morning and the last to leave at night.
As more Chinese tycoons move towards retirement – the average age of the billionaires on Hurun’s rich list is 43 – succession planning will become more important. And although Chinese patriarchs have traditionally preferred male heirs to inherit their businesses, China’s one-child policy often makes that impossible. So more fathers will have to pass on their empires to an ‘only’ daughter, meaning more women will start to appear in company boardrooms, especially at family-controlled firms.
There is already plenty of evidence of the trend. Just last month, Liu Chang was promoted by her father Liu Yonghao to run a major unit of his agribusiness giant, New Hope Group. Liu senior says that his daughter is still too inexperienced to run the group alone, although presumably he hopes that this will change with time.
Not that his daughter sees her final promotion as inevitable, either: “I know I am not the only person who can take over from my father but I will remain loyal and do everything in my power to protect the company,” she told reporters two years ago.
Similarly, motorbike tycoon Zuo Zongshen has announced that his daughter Zuo Ying will take on more responsibility at Zongshen and telecoms giant Huawei has appointed Cathy Meng, daughter of Huawei boss Ren Zhengfei, as its chief financial officer.
“It is natural for most Chinese entrepreneurs to choose their offspring as successors, as the professional executive system is still not very developed here,” says Zhou Jiangong, editor-in-chief at Forbes magazine in China.
Of course, for those with more than one child, the decision isn’t always so straightforward. Lifan Group chairman Yin Mingshan ultimately chose his daughter Yin Suowei rather than his son to inherit his business – another motorcycle maker – after evaluating their respective merits.
“I have never considered naming my son as my successor,” Yin told media. “He is a fashionable man who doesn’t care too much if he succeeds me or not.”
Daughters of successful entrepreneurs in China may well be starting to take on leadership roles in family businesses. But it will take a little while longer to transform many of the gender stereotypes that still characterise much of the discussion about women in the workplace.
For instance, Chinese media reports typically focus on how female executives bring a feminine touch to their style of management.
“Compared with men, women are more detail-oriented and these qualities can help their leadership in human resources,” Liu Haimei from Adfaith Management Consulting advised Southern Metropolis Daily. “And besides, women tend to be more sensitive. So even if they were to revolutionise a company they would probably do it in small steps so it’s more acceptable for the employees.”
The media also likes to focus on the marital prospects of career-minded females, often retreating to the rather tired debate about China’s “leftover women” – a label for educated women over the age of 27 who are still single.
The daughter of the founder at Wahaha was also asked a series of questions about her lovelife by Harper’s Bazaar earlier this year, revealing that she was “pessimistic about love” because suitors seemed more interested in her family fortune than her (see WiC178).
“My family is too wealthy. I can’t tell the motives of my suitors. Every man who approaches me seems to make a business pitch,” the 31 year-old manager at Wahaha complained.
For women who have married, magazines then speculate that tycoons see their new sons-in-law as the true corporate heirs.
“Passing the helm to the daughter means you have two chances: even if the daughter doesn’t work out, her husband can still fill the shoes,” China Entrepreneur writes.
But if daughters of billionaires are doing well enough, gender stereotypes may be hindering the advancement of women more broadly.
China’s 2010 census put the country’s urban employment rate for working-age women at a new low of 60.8% in 2010, down from 77.4% 20 years earlier. Women are under-represented in the workplace too: a study by the National University of Singapore and the New York-based Asia Society shows that for every five Chinese men who rise to a senior position, only one woman achieves the same level of advancement.
The glass ceiling is even more obvious in the political world. In the Communist Party’s Central Committee, where major policy decisions are taken, only 10 of the 205 members are women. No woman has ever held a spot on the Politburo Standing Committee, the Party’s top decisionmaking body.
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