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Chinese Women Amass Power, Wealth, but Parity Remains Elusive

FILE - A woman wearing a mask walks past a wall painted with China's national flag in central Beijing.
FILE - A woman wearing a mask walks past a wall painted with China's national flag in central Beijing.

The new Forbes magazine list of the most powerful women in the world includes nine Chinese women, a sign of women’s growing power in Chinese society. But many activists say women have a long way to go before achieving parity and equal rights with men.

China has more female billionaires than any other country in the world, and Shimin Shin said women’s aspirations in China’s boardrooms have grown in parallel with their net worth and the Chinese economy.

Forbes list shows gains for Chinese women

“I think actually this is not really a surprising result for me, because if you check the Forbes list for the top wealthiest women in the world, you’re going to see around 13 Chinese women. So there is definitely some connection, and even though the most recent Forbes list focuses on the most powerful, you see entrepreneurs, business leaders, and also political leaders," Shin said.

Shin is the co-founder of LeanIn China, a branch of the non-profit organization founded by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO, which offers educational resources and programming that encourage female leadership. The group in China has more than 80,000 members.

American women dominated the Forbes list, but China came in second, including Lucy Peng, a senior executive at e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization. Pollyanna Chu, chief executive of Hong Kong financial services firm Kingston Securities, and China's first lady, Peng Liyuan, are also on the list.

Half of the women on the list were from outside the U.S., and a quarter were from the Asia Pacific region. A recent study by the Center for Work Life Policy found that 76 percent of Chinese women plan on becoming a senior business leader; that’s compared to 52 percent of American women. According to the study, 73 percent of women in China work outside the home.

FILE- A woman talks on phone inside the Bank of China head office building in Beijing, China.
FILE- A woman talks on phone inside the Bank of China head office building in Beijing, China.

Author says list is misleading concerning Chinese women

Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women, said these statistics, and the Forbes list, mask a low status for women in Chinese society.

“This list is about a miniscule proportion of Chinese women. It says absolutely nothing about the status of the vast majority of women in China,” said Fincher.

Women’s rights activists point to a rising pay gap between men and women; sex selective abortions which have resulted in a large gender imbalance in the countryside; high rates of domestic abuse and discrimination faced by women when applying for jobs or promotions.

Challenges remain for women in China

The Chinese government has also included Chinese feminists in its crackdown on civil society, arresting five women’s rights activists last year when they tried to distribute leaflets protesting sexual harassment on International Women’s Day.

Maya Wang, China Researcher for Human Rights Watch, said, “There is discrimination, mostly in the areas of employment and education for women. This type of discrimination is not subtle; they are often very public. So for example, you can often find job ads in China that advertises male only. So for example if you want to apply to be a lawyer or a waiter, there are specifications for gender.”

Despite challenges for women’s rights activists on the ground, Shimen Shen said this is bound to change. Chinese women hold 46 percent of professional positions in China, and membership in LeanIn China is growing.