Fifty years after Mao Zedong proclaimed “women [can] hold up half the sky," and yet, gender equality in Asia remains as elusive as it is elsewhere. But a growing number of women in the region are reshaping the business landscape as they rise to the top by forging their own entrepreneurial path, despite overwhelming obstacles.
Notably, more than half of the 56 women who made Forbes' 2017 list of female self-made billionaires were from the Asia: 21 were from mainland China alone and five more from Hong Kong, including the world's richest self-made woman, Zhou Qunfei.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen of those in Fortune Magazine's 2017 list of the 50 most powerful business women outside the United States were from Asia.
What unique economic or social factors could be fueling these success stories — particularly in China, a culture steeped in centuries of Confucianism and filial piety and where women are still under pressure to marry before they're labeled “leftover women"?
Sarah Chan, executive director, global private banking at RBC in Hong Kong, says China is unique in the region in terms of opportunities available to female entrepreneurs, driven by a confluence of education, technology, guanxi (關係) or connections, and importantly, history, even amid a male-dominated cultural backdrop.
“I find that the Chinese are risk takers," says Chan. “China is so big. There are a lot of opportunities." Many don't enjoy simply earning a salary. she adds. They see the lucrative success of their entrepreneurial peers and aspire to accomplish the same. In some instances, Chan notes, women also take more risks than their male counterparts.
The rapid rise of technology has also become a game changer, Chan says, in terms of allowing women to participate more in society.
According to The new face of wealth and legacy survey by The Economist Intelligence Unit, commissioned by RBC Wealth Management, a higher percentage of Asian high-net-worth (HNW) women than men - 24 percent versus 15 percent - say they own their own business.
Among the Asian women surveyed, 39 percent have investable assets between US$1 million and $3 million, 25 percent have assets between $5 million and $10 million, while another five percent have between $10 million and $50 million.
Unlike the U.S., where research shows women-led startups attract dramatically less venture money than those led by men - three percent according to one study - Chan believes China offers a lot of opportunities for female entrepreneurs.
“Women don't have many obstacles to get the opportunity to set up their own business," she says. “It's just based on profitability. They will base it on the deal rather than the gender."
Often, opportunities in China come down to guanxi (關係) - who you know, how well you know them, and what you learn from them . And in Chan's experience, gender has not been an obstacle in exercising those connections either.
“I do have very successful clients who are women entrepreneurs. They have very good guanxi."
For Chan, history also plays a surprising and unlikely role in laying a foundation for women in China to succeed.
“The one-child policy contributed to the rise of female entrepreneurship," says Chan. “Traditionally, we've placed a higher value on males. A family would rather have a son than a daughter."
Families with sons and daughters would prioritize the education and future of the son, often leaving the daughter with fewer opportunities. The controversial one-child policy, implemented (with exceptions) some 40 years ago and relaxed in 2015, meant many families, particularly those with money, had no choice but to pour their resources into a daughter.
As an only child, a daughter then had a greater chance of a good education or to even be sent overseas for school. She would likely receive greater parental care and parental investment, and may be given family money to help set up a business, all of which leads to greater gender equality, says Chan.
But Chan also goes further back, noting the devastation wrought during World War II. “Many people were killed. And the economy at that moment was terrible. They needed to build up the country, and build the economy," she says.
With a new government in power in 1949, new laws were established, including equal rights for women. Campaigns to encourage women to join the workforce resulted in a dramatic influx of working women. According to one academic research paper on gender inequality in urban China, data from a large-scale population survey indicated that 71 percent of women married between 1950 and 1965 had jobs, and 92 percent of women married between 1966 and 1976 were employed.
While true gender equality has yet to be reached in China, the growing trend of women entrepreneurs will benefit the economic development of the country, says Chan, pointing to how it can help build the GDP, enlarge the workforce in Asia, and help create a better life for employees of these companies.
The 2017 global gender gap report by the World Economic Forum cites a McKinsey study that suggests economic gender parity could boost China's GDP by US$2.5 trillion.
“Gender parity is also fundamental to whether and how economies and societies thrive," the report says. “In such a highly-interconnected and rapidly changing world, diversity is critical to informed corporate decision-making and business innovation."
Greater government support could play an important role in helping women entrepreneurs, Chan says, adding that more funding opportunities, mentorship programs, and better maternity leave laws, are also factors that can help foster more female entrepreneurship.
China has a great deal of influence in Asia, says Chan, they do a lot business with the countries around them, and globalization, technology, even the realization that your business counterpart is a woman, will all help drive this trend beyond China.
“Eventually, people will learn the merit of being inclusive and diverse. It will drive innovation. It will help grow the country, make the company more competitive, more innovative," Chan says.
“A lot of countries spend a lot of money on education. Because of that, (they'll) find that talent literally has no gender, no age, race, nationality, or sexual orientation. It's not an issue at all. It's just a norm."
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