Depending on who you ask, women both are and aren’t making big strides in China’s tech world.
On the one hand, for years official outlets have held that women make up 55% of entrepreneurs in the vaguely defined field of “internet businesses.” In addition, according to Silicon Valley Bank’s 2018 survey, China again topped the US, the UK, and Canada in terms of tech and healthcare startups with at least one woman as an executive or director.
On the other hand, different surveys have turned up less optimistic numbers. According to a recent press release, recruiting platform BossZhipin found that women hold under 20% of jobs in the high-paying fields of AI and big data. And in a 2017 study by NetEase Cloud and ITJuzi, only 16% of tech entrepreneurs surveyed were women.
Even with more gender diversity, discriminatory practices persist. In 2018, female-led Didi faced accusations of endangering women through its carpooling feature, while a Human Rights Watch report turned up sexist recruitment ads posted by tech titans Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.
Clearly, it both is and isn’t challenging to be a woman within China’s fast-paced tech scene. In honor of International Women’s Day—a tradition that began with American socialists and is now a Chinese national holiday—we talked to women working with various aspects of technology about how it’s impacted their lives.
Half the sky
“China’s a little bit different” from the US and UK, Ladies Who Tech co-founder Jill Tang told TechNode. She cites Mao’s dictum “women hold up half the sky” as an example of a more general acceptance towards females in the workforce.
Still, she feels that mindset only goes so far in overcoming “universal” stereotypes. “We have a lot of girls [who] study in STEM, it’s just a matter of whether they’re going to take STEM as a job.” Ladies Who Tech aims to challenge the status quo in STEM disciplines, shifting the scales towards gender equality through awareness and education.
Even if women enter the field of tech, Tang said, it’s likely to be in a non-technical role such as HR, administration, or marketing.
She and Ladies Who Tech co-founder Charlene Liu hope to change things with networking events featuring female speakers in cities around China. Tang said that traditional beliefs about women’s careers may already be shifting thanks to the allure of high-paying careers in fields like AI.
“We need more people to participate in tech, in STEM, which drives innovation, startups, and entrepreneurship.”
Another co-founder of an Asia-based community building group, Female Entrepreneurs Worldwide’s Anna Wong, said she still considers many tech spaces “male dominated.” At a past conference where she was a speaker, for instance, out of around 100 people there were “less than five women.”
But the organization’s database also shows that the number of female members in tech is increasing. “We see quite a lot of startups or companies [that] are technology-enabled,” often by integrating a field like fashion with an e-commerce model.
Barriers to entry
Although she prefers not to call it a “challenge,” Wong said that family responsibilities can interfere with professional development for women of all ages. More time spent with kids is less time networking, “which means less opportunity for business development.”
“At the same time, I think when you are balanced it’s actually a good thing for your life, for your business.”
Israeli journalist Noga Feige, a member of the board of directors for Shanghai-based International Professional Women’s Society, agrees that family expectations can be a burden. She often lectures and writes about young, highly-educated urban dwellers she calls “the new women of China.” While she considers the environment in cities like Shanghai to be relatively open towards women, she thinks many still battle traditional expectations.
Past surveys have found a relatively high percentage of female entrepreneurs, Feige said, but “these numbers don’t really matter when women can’t get investment, are fired for getting pregnant or pressured by their families to get a job that’s suitable.”
She recalls a past interview with a female investment banker working in an all-women’s office. “Her female boss approached them and ordered them to decide among themselves when each one is planning to get pregnant so that it doesn’t interfere with their work.”
Despite excellent education and other resources, even “new women” can be held back by old ways of thinking. “[It’s] like being given the keys to a Ferrari and then constantly being told to hit the brakes.”
Lu Lu registered her first media account on social platform WeChat in 2015, while she was a “full-time mother” of two. Now, she juggles motherhood and her burgeoning business as an influencer with 800,000 “middle class” female followers, which includes managing a team of 10.
“We’ve never had an office, not because our company… can’t afford it, but because I personally prefer working from home.”
She considers this an advantage of a new media job “because children can’t see mothers in the [traditional] workplace.” She brings her daughters to appearances as events when possible, in order to serve as a role model for them in the future.
The majority of Lu’s readers are also mothers, and she writes about her own experiences as an entrepreneur.
“In my public account, I can see all kinds of people like me, mothers who start businesses in all kinds of fields. Every time a reader shares with me, I’m very happy.”
For Lu, WeChat lowered the threshold for starting her own business. She’s not alone. “Today many ordinary women, even if their background doesn’t have any special selling points, they can also have achievements. In reality I know many female entrepreneurs like this, and this year our platform has a plan to create a series of interviews with female entrepreneurs.”
While Zhang Yi’s trajectory hasn’t exactly been ordinary, the internet celebrity and Taobao entrepreneur expressed similar satisfaction in an interview. During an eight-year modeling career, she felt constrained.
“I wanted to be able to make choices,” she said. After gathering a following on social media, she saw a business opportunity–“beauty is a need,” she stated matter-of-factly–and seized it. Her line of makeup, skincare, clothing, and furniture has raked in over RMB 1 billion (around $149 million) in gross merchandise volume for two years in a row, according to Alibaba.
For Li Dan, based in Shanghai, a career in technology was a deliberate choice. After working in finance, she decided to attend international coding bootcamp Le Wagon last April.
”I just wanted to…make my own app or product,” she said.
After working at a startup, she’s since become a freelancer with a couple projects on the side: a web application she’s working on with former classmates, and possibly her own WeChat mini-program.
In her personal circle, “I saw a lot of females… already in tech” or who want to follow a similar path.
“In the beginning, my parents didn’t really understand why I would choose to code at my age.” But Li, who says she’s in her “late twenties,” said they’ve since come to support her choice.
“After a while I showed them what I built. And I guess they also hear about how important tech is in real life and what we do actually has an impact,” she said.