The rise of women in China’s tech sector

5 min read


Hangzhou audience saluting attendees at parallel sessions in Tokyo, Jakarta, and Sydney during the 2019 Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship (Image credit: Alibaba)

After working in the technology sector for more than a decade, Miffy Chen still remembers the early days of her career when she was the only female on her team and was constantly bombarded with the question “Are you really a computer science major?”

Now as a vice president of Alibaba Group and general manager of Alibaba AI Labs, Chen proves women are just as capable as men, even in technical fields where the latter are overrepresented.

Women in various roles from business owners to researchers are a force to be reckoned with in China and around the world. With female labor force participation at around 63% in China, the country’s women contributed 41% of GDP in 2017, a higher percentage than in most other countries including the US, according to a report by Deloitte China and women’s professional support network Lean In China.

Improving the economic empowerment of women could have more significant impacts on a global scale. Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke in a video message during the Alibaba 2019 Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurs held on August 28 that the global economy could add $28 trillion by 2025 if women participated in the labor force to the same degree as men.

At the Hangzhou conference (picture above), which was created to hold dialogues on challenges and opportunities faced by females in different cultures and regions, we talked to women entrepreneurs and those in the tech sector to see how their lives are being impacted by the ongoing changes.

Woman in the digital era

Rapid advances in digital technologies and artificial intelligence are shaping China’s economy as well as its landscape for innovation. Several speakers at the event have already identified the transformation and development of technology as a major force in driving gender equality and empowering female entrepreneurs in China.

Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma, who has been very vocal about hiring females, told a packed house at the conference that women are going to be very powerful in the 21st century as people focus more on their wisdom and experience.

With their distinctive characteristics, including empathy, altruism, inclusion, thoughtfulness, and attention to detail, female entrepreneurs are reshaping how the world functions in the digital era, he added.

Ma believes women can integrate their distinctive characteristics into the design and development of products and services that would bring more “warmth” to the world.

Ma also pointed out that, based on purchase trends of female shoppers on Alibaba’s platforms, women often shop from multiple categories such as menswear, toys, and home supplies. Such pattern demonstrates that when women shop, they tend to shop for the entire family.

In addition to being a consumption power, women are also expected to make great advancements in the workplace.

More jobs will be created for women in the AI era. Take the voice assistant industry, for example, most AI-powered voice assistants, including Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, use female- voices, Miffy Chen points out. This is creating a new position for female voiceover artists.

Although the research and development units of AI assistant services are overwhelmingly staffed by male engineering teams, around half of design and testing teams at Alibaba are women.

Women are also much needed in AI tagging, a position that teaches machines to pronounce a word, to talk, and to identify pictures, in a similar way to how a mother teaches their kids to learn, Chen noted.


CTO of Cainiao Logistics Gu Xuemei (L), Alibaba Group Vice President Miffy Chen (R) (Image credit: TechNode/Emma Lee)

Gu Xuemei, Chief Technology Officer of Alibaba’s Cainiao Logistics, believes her gender has had minimal impact on her career.

“Technology is a broad term. R&D workers at tech firms are usually stereotyped as male, although it’s improving,” Gu said. “In the future, the ratio of females in the tech sector will be higher given that creation and imagination, which females are known for, are two desired traits of future tech workers.”

Chen and Gu are far from the only females that have climbed to the top of the corporate ladder. An increasing number of women are heading senior positions in China’s tech firms as well as within the research field. For example, at Alibaba, one-third of the partners are women.

Self-made businesswomen

Chen Yan and her guide dog (Image credit: TechNode/Emma Lee)

Forty-year-old Chen Yan started her Taobao store in 2015 as the first blind female piano tuner in China. Now, she has trained nearly 100 blind people who would have little means of supporting themselves otherwise.

Chen was born with several visual impairments and completely lost it all in a car accident in life. Being blind, life has not been easy. “I wouldn’t have started a business if I had other choices because entrepreneurship is a tough journey,” she said.

For Chen, an online presence lowered the threshold for starting her own business, saving on costs when operating offline outlets and reaching more customers. In addition, AI-powered optical character recognition technology available on Taobao makes it easier for her and those in the blind community to shop and do business online. The technology reads the product description out loud, thus eliminating the need to read the text.

Ma Lingmin, a post-95 college graduate from southwestern China’s Yunnan province, spotted her entrepreneurial potential in livestreaming farm products. Over the past year, Ma Lingmin visited 36 counties and villages, helping farmers in poverty-stricken areas to sell their quality produce at decent profit margins.

Famous for her fruit-peeling skills, Ma Lingmin helps the farmers living in a village located in the mountainous Mengzi City to sell hundreds of tons of yellow ginger, native produce that was once very difficult to sell to the rest of the world. One of Ma Lingmin’s beneficiaries is Xiong Yilin, a disabled farmer who is the sole dependent of the family. Xiong is building up a new house for his family, instead of living under the same roof with livestock.

Ma Lingmin has attracted five million fans on Taobao by sharing beautiful rural landscapes as well as local treasures straight from mother nature, such as plums and sweet cucumbers.

Livestreaming is an effective marketing tool to introduce and recommend products to potential consumers. According to Taobao, sales generated by livestreaming on the platform exceeded RMB100 billion in 2018.

“Working six hours for 25 days per month as a livestreamer is stressful and needs lots of perseverance,” said Miffy Chen.

Similar to Jack Ma, Uju Uzo-Ojinnaka’s entrepreneurial journey started from her dedication to facilitating the online sales of peanuts, her hometown’s specialty. The Nigerian was hit by frustration in 2017 after she failed to find enough peanut suppliers in her country, the biggest peanut producer on the African continent. Inspired by the entrepreneurial story of Jack Ma, she started Traders of Africa (TOFA), now one of the most prolific online B2B shopping platforms in Africa.

A report, called 2019 Global Research Report of Female Entrepreneurship & Employment, unveiled by Alibaba Research and China Women’s University Research during the event concluded that many female entrepreneurs are finding it easier to run their own businesses in the digital age. Ordinary women, even without a background or any special selling points, can also make similar achievements.

49.3% of the entrepreneurs on Alibaba’s platforms are female, according to the report. The percentage of women shop owners on Alibaba’s online global retail platform AliExpress reached 53.7%。

Instead of focusing on niche and high-quality products that are particularly well suited to vertical markets, the e-commerce businesses of female entrepreneurs on Alibaba platforms are scaling up across sectors at exponential speed.

Industry-wise, female shop owners are expanding to traditionally male-dominated sectors, such as car maintenance, auto parts/accessories, and smart electronics.

The average turnover of Taobao stores run by female entrepreneurs surpassed RMB 200,000 in 2018, doubling the figure for 2014 and 30% higher than that for stores by male owners in the same period, the report added.

Editor’s note: This article was sponsored by Alibaba. We believe in transparency in our publishing and monetization model. Read more here.