When Anna Fang was studying for her MBA at Stanford University, unlike many of her classmates, she wasn’t too worried about her post-graduation job prospects. After finishing school, Fang returned to China, where she now heads up a successful investments start-up company in the CBD, a position, she says, that would not have been available to her in the U.S.
Fang is one of many female professionals, both foreign and local, who are finding success across a wide range of industries in the capital. From gallery owners to consultants, lawyers to entrepreneurs, women in business are flourishing in Beijing.
The Beijing chapter of international professional women’s networking group 85 Broads has expanded to 400 members in just two years, with membership increasing 10 per cent after every event. And that’s just one of three major professional women’s networking groups in the capital, alongside Viva and Women in Business. Spark:Her, a group that stages motivational and educational forums for female professionals, has recently begun holding lectures in Beijing. These groups join a list of long-standing women’s groups in multinationals operating in the capital.
Why is Beijing such fertile ground for female professionals? A combination of gender roles in which women are financially influential in the home and often work outside of it, combined with strong family support structures, the importance of guanxi, and the sheer amount of business opportunity in Beijing come together to create an especially opportune place for women, both local and foreign, to make it in the commercial sphere.
Fang’s co-workers are all women—except for the intern. “All of my role models are women in China,” she says. “There are a lot of very successful women who balance their personal and business lives.”
She points to leading investment professional Shauna Xie as a woman who “does it all.”
Xie has three daughters, two in elementary school who stay with her parents during the work week, while the youngest is watched by her husband’s parents who live with her. Xie says that though there are commonalities around the world for all women who work, the atmosphere in China is encouraging. The support she receives from her family, is something she says is not present for working women in Western countries.
The “stay-at-home mom” is more of a Western concept, says Fang. Emma Zhang, 25, a successful woman in the world of finance, agrees. “[The perception of women in China] is less centered around being a mother in a nuclear family,” she says. Zhang and Fang both point to the Cultural Revolution, where both men and women were expected to work, as a time that fostered a sense of gender equality in the workplace.
But green professional Dannan Hodge says that as China develops into an increasingly consumerist society, attitudes may be changing. “Marketing has a much stronger effect on how people evaluate personality, how they view themselves and other people, and there’s a different standard developing for women,” she says. “Society is going to treat women differently, in a more Western sense, based on physical beauty. This is creeping into social and professional spheres.”
Much is made of the importance of guanxi in doing business in China, and the Beijing chapter of 85 Broads focuses on fostering meaningful relationships between women in different industries, says Katherine Don, co-founder of the Beijing chapter and of Red Box Studio, an art consultancy. Don says the women business professionals in China who attend the events are impressed by the quality of the relationships they develop. “That maybe says something about the current landscape for women in China, how they really support each other in the professional sphere.”
Fang agrees and says that although in the States people are just as willing to introduce people for initial connections, a personal relationship in China goes a lot farther. The relationships formed at meetings of women’s groups such as 85 Broads is one example of her belief that women can find greater opportunities here than in other countries.
The potential for professional growth in China for well-educated women with language skills is so large that it’s “uncapped,” according Mariel Montouri, project manager and head of the Women’s Professional Committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, who, along with Hodge, organized the capital’s major celebratory event for International Women’s Day on March 8. In order to take advantage of this opportunity, “[Women] really need to be knocking on all the doors, and pushing their way forward in terms of their career.”
Success in Beijing has less to do with gender than it does putting in the effort to learn the language and culture, says Meg Maggio, owner of Pékin Fine Arts, a successful gallery in Caochangdi who has over three decades of experience working in China. “I think the expertise that you have to develop here is a strong ability to function locally,” she says. “You need to understand things at a very local level, and be very independent language-wise.” Maggio’s sentiments are echoed by Fang, Zhang and Xie, who all say the opportunities in China are great for those women who understand and can function within the culture.
But there can be specific benefits for women working in careers where physical safety may be a concern. Melinda Liu, Beijing Bureau Chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast). “It would be very unusual for a woman foreign journalist to be sexually assaulted here,” she says. “But in other countries, especially developing countries, especially in conflict areas, or where social order is not very good, that’s definitely a concern.”
Liu says she has encountered the “old boys club” mentality in her field, but that she has also been in many situations where being a woman helped. “I can’t actually claim that it’s been an extra obstacle for me,” she says. “Sometimes sources are more comfortable talking to women ... occasionally in China that’s the case; people want to be polite.”
Whatever the formula for success, women are thriving in the professional sphere in Beijing. “China is the story of the 21st century,” says Fang. “This is where to be.”