Digital technologies have shaped the modern world. They have become great equalizers capable of amplifying voices that previously went unheard. Unfortunately, in China and the rest of the world, they have so far been unable to tackle the gender inequality within the technology industry.

Less than a third of female students in China undertake technology-related degrees. Despite this low number, 90% of Chinese women involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) industries feel driven by a sense of meaning and purpose. Nonetheless, 30% of them are likely to leave their jobs within the first year.

The reasons are numerous. From lack of upward mobility within corporate structures to coworkers believing the false notion that men have a genetic advantage in technical fields as well as bias in performance evaluations. Women even report that behaving like men is beneficial to advancing their careers.

Prejudical procedures

But breaking into the industry is also tricky. Discriminatory hiring practices came to light in early 2018 after it was revealed China’s tech companies have a preference for men. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, these companies often explicitly specify a proclivity or requirement for male applicants.

“When we look at gender equality…it’s a much bigger picture. It’s a lot more complex [than just pay],” Michelle Li, founder of Ruiwen She Power, said at a recent panel discussion in Hangzhou.

According to a 2017 report released by Chinese employment platform Zhaoping,  22% of women experienced extreme discrimination when seeking employment. This discrimination increases if women are better educated, and once employed, promotions are hard to come by.

Read more: Lies and statistics: How many of China’s women are actually in the tech sector?

“It’s about looking at the entire process, which means we have to start from the beginning,” Li said, highlighting the importance of hiring practices.

At 86th place out of 144 countries, China ranked behind Africa’s Lesotho and Malawi for economic participation and opportunity, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap report. Last year was the ninth time in a row the country’s overall position shifted negatively.

Tackling the divide

The gender gap is quite obviously illustrated by the difference in pay between male and female employees.  Women in China make 22% less for doing similar work. While Mao famously said that “women hold up half the sky,” it would seem they don’t receive equal reimbursement for doing so.

“The goal ultimately is, of course, closing the gap,” Charlene Liu, co-founder of Ladies Who Tech, told TechNode. “So how to get there? One way is we want to inspire; inspire more women to be in STEM.”

Ladies Who Tech, founded by Liu and Jill Tang, aims to do just that. They officially launched the social enterprise on International Women’s Day in 2016 and relaunched in 2017. “We really want to try and encourage more Chinese ladies,” said Tang. “It’s a platform for everyone, but of course we are in China, so we will have a large amount of Chinese women.”

They are attempting to leverage the power of a community. Li also highlighted this idea in the panel discussion focusing on how technology can influence gender equality: “We have to be able to get into a group together. So for one woman to succeed, you will notice behind her will be many successful women that say she is successful.”

Despite women making up 40% of China’s STEM workforce, parity has yet to be reached. Both Liu and Tang believe that family plays an integral role in combating this. Liu said that when she decided to study a STEM-related subject, she didn’t receive encouragement from her family.

“It was a little bit discouraging,” she said. “Maybe it was my temperament, but I was just pissed. I said ‘I am going to prove you guys wrong,’ and I really mean guys, because it was my uncles who said that I wasn’t supposed to do this. I did, and it was tough, but I told myself I’m going to prove people wrong.”

When she started a job at Motorola in 1996, her boss was a woman. She said that even though there were very few women in management positions at the time, she didn’t think much of it. “Now, I think it was a big thing,” she comments.

The benefits of equality are not just social; they are also economic. According to the World Economic Forum, China could raise its GDP by $2.5 trillion from gender parity. Tang agrees: “If your company is diversified, your profit, your performance margins are 6% higher. It’s good for the shareholders. It’s a win-win situation,” she said.

Role models

While it is often reported that 55% of Chinese internet companies are founded by women, the numbers of women working in technology at technology companies is unclear. Tang believes that these companies may employ a lot of women, but the majority work in marketing or administration.

“For example, we had a woman from Taobao,” said Tang. “She runs a team of 30 people. There are only two women [in the team]. She’s the head, and runs a team of mostly men.”

Women account for just 9.4% of board members on publicly traded companies in China. However, despite the difficulties involved in climbing the corporate ladder, there is an increasing number of women who hold senior positions in China’s big tech companies. Female leaders include Ant Financial’s Peng Lei, Didi’s Jean Liu, VIPKid’s Mi Wenjuan, Bytedance’s Liu Zhen, Ctrip’s Sun Jie, Baidu’s Ma Dongmin. Additionally, Len’s Technology’s Zhou Qunfei is the richest self-made woman in the world.

Women at the top of a company shouldn’t be taken as an indication of female representation at the companies as a whole. But Liu and Tang believe they can influence decision-making to inspire women and create an equal environment.

“You need to be a role model. Then they can use their resources and influence to make it happen, Instead of going from the bottom up, at least when the companies put those women in those positions, they can do something,” said Tang.

Both Liu and Tang are aware that inspiration is not a cure-all for the industry’s gender parity woes. They hope to tackle the problems with the help of companies and governments and are placing their bets on the high-powered women within the tech industry.

“It doesn’t matter if it takes 100 years or 1000 years; if you don’t start you’re never going to close the gap,” said Tang. “Another reason we want to get corporates and governments on board is that we want to make an impact, but if there aren’t any jobs [for women in STEM], it’s not encouraging.”

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.

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