On a chilly January evening, three women sat in a restaurant in Beijing’s posh Sanlitun neighbourhood, lost in thought as they gazed at their half-finished plates of organic pasta. Fashionably dressed and in their midtwenties, Allison, Yolanda and Maggie are the organisers of “Lean In Beijing,” a women’s professional development group named after the best-selling self-help book by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and one of the world’s most influential feminist voices.
In her book Sandberg urges women to pursue their careers rather than allowing themselves to fall victim to gender biases in the workplace or at home. Her message has found a passionate audience in the US and abroad. There are now over 14,000 “Lean In Circles” around the world, where women meet to keep one another focused on their professional goals.
The Beijing circle, which was founded last summer, received a big boost in September, when Sandberg visited the city to promote the Chinese version of her book, and more than 800 fans flocked to hear her speech at Peking University. Just a few months later, however, the organisers are worried that the energy is already faltering.
“We have circles in several universities in Beijing,” said Allison. “But the problem is, no one is willing to lead them.”
“If I were them, I would not want to lead either,” Yolanda said. “They [the students] are thinking: ‘I have so much on my plate already. I don’t know who you are, and you expect me to lead a group?’ ”
Feminism as a coherent civil and political movement has never arrived in China. Among the majority of Chinese women, even white-collar professionals who face the kind of career challenges Sandberg addresses, her message of female selfempowerment can sound distant, even out of touch. There are a number of native factors, such as China’s cultural tradition, its corporate environment, and a weak civil society, that make it difficult for feminism to take hold here.
There is little question that Chinese women would benefit from such a movement. A study in 2010 showed that China’s urban employment rate for working-age women stood at 60.8 per cent, down from 77.4 percent 20 years earlier. Women’s wages as a proportion of men’s also dropped from 84 to 74 percent between 1995 and 2007.
The reasons for this shift are complex, but one crucial factor is rising wage levels for middle class jobs, which make it easier for a family to live on a single breadwinner’s income. The result is that there is less immediate need for both the husband and wife to work, and so more women have opted out of the workforce, since they are still expected to do the majority of the housework and childcare at home.
As Communist ideology recedes in present- day China, traditional gender roles have regained sway. “The whole of society is telling you, why do you need to be so successful as a woman?” said Yolanda, who works in a hospitality company. “In China, feminists are seen as weirdoes.”
Rigid corporate culture allows little room for change, especially inside China’s stateowned sectors, which attract the top graduates. “I can’t negotiate my salary, it’s decided by my hours,” said Allison about her job at a state bank. “My boss doesn’t encourage us to take initiative. It’s better to take orders.” This image of women as passive and subservient is reinforced in state-owned newspapers and television. Instead of encouraging women to pursue their career, Chinese media throws around words such as “left-over” women, stigmatising educated women who are in their late twenties and still single. “Left-over women should pay attention to their own shortcomings,” reads an article in a provincial Chinese newspaper. “Successful men and women need to conform to the standards of good husbands and wives.”
Many Chinese women, internalising social expectations, decide early on that they would prefer a less intense domestic lifestyle to the cut-throat competition in the professional world.
“In China, many tell themselves: ‘Well, [Lean In] is not the kind of life I want anyway,’” said Maggie, the third organiser at the Lean In meeting. Allison agrees. “We want to spread the idea of Lean In to those who are ready for it,” she said. “If they are not, it’s very difficult to force it onto them.”
Still, there exists a cohort of women who have achieved dazzling professional success, especially in business. China has “more self-made female business billionaires than any other country in the world,” according to Newsweek. These individuals range from real estate moguls to restaurateurs. Though they may not view themselves as self-styled feminists, as many western female business leaders such as Sandberg do, they have nonetheless overcome China’s societal and institutional obstacles to become symbols of hope for aspirational women.
The Lean In leaders are still optimistic about the future. “I believe feminism is an unstoppable trend in the long run,” said Allison. And her confidence recently received a further boost. In early January, a 23-yearold woman won an out of court settlement after she filed what is believed to be China’s first gender discrimination lawsuit. A recent university graduate from Shanxi province, Cao Ju was turned down from a job at a private tutoring firm only because, as she was told by the firm, “the position requires a man.”
Instead of accepting the injustice, as many other female job seekers have done, Cao decided to find a lawyer. “I believe I am qualified for the job,” Cao told a Chinese newspaper. “I am female, and that should never be a problem.”