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…