Are Chinese women holding up half of the sky in China? (Part 1)

Women in tech-entrepreneurship and tech-business

China has a strong “SHE-economy”. On aggregate, women currently contribute about 41 percent to China’s GDP, a higher percentage than in most other countries, including the US. [1] Consequently, more and more tech companies focus on women-oriented products or services, after seeing the huge market potential of China’s “SHE-economy”.

China has a strong “SHE-business power”. As one example, about 53 percent of American technology companies have women in top positions (C-level). In China, it’s closer to 80 percent, according to a survey by Silicon Valley Bank among their 900 clients across the US, the UK and China. [2]

China also has a strong “SHE-brain power”.  According to the Education Statistical Data of China (2017), the share of female students at the undergraduate level was 53 percent, 50 percent at the master’s level and 39 percent at the Ph.D. level. [3] These are high figures in an international comparison. However, the proportion of men is much higher in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math [4] and less than one third of female students in China undertake STEM-related degrees. [5]

So, are Chinese women holding up half of the sky in China? The knowledge-intensive and disruptive transformation empowered by the rapid advancement in digital technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) makes China’s economy and its innovation landscape both unique and highly dynamic. An increasingly important and pertinent question is how this transformation and technology development can influence gender equality in China, i.e. Chinese women’s possibility and capability to engage and to be empowered?

When the International Women’s Day is approaching, here are some interesting facts and our thoughts related to Chinese women in business, higher education and research that we would like to share with you. In this first part, let us look at some facts on and examples of China’s women business leadership and entrepreneurship.

The digital economy accounted for about 32 percent of China’s GDP in 2017, according to the China Internet Plus Index Report. When we talk about China’s digital economy, we cannot miss to look at large digital tech companies and service providers, such as BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) and Didi (China’s Uber): [6]

  • Baidu has about 40,000 employees and 45 percent of them are female. Among all employees, over 50 percent of them are technology and R&D focused. 34 percent of tech-specialized employees are female.
  • Alibaba Group has over 50,000 employees and women account for 47 percent of the total. One third of Alibaba Group founders and senior management executives are women.
  • The president and CFO of Didi is a woman, Jean Liu. 40 percent of Didi’s employees are female while women hold 20 percent of senior management positions.

“I was struck by how many of the C-level officers running Chinese companies were women. And how many of them were CEO, COO, CFO, or even CTO”. — Sara Lacy, The Atlantic

However, as shown in the Global Gender Gap Report (GGGP 2018), [7] China is only ranked No. 103 among 149 countries included. The overall economic participation and opportunity and health and survival for women are ranked low as well as educational attainment, particularly in terms of literacy rate and enrolment in primary education. Interestingly, among all the sub-rankings of different aspects of gender equality, both China and Sweden actually are two most advanced countries in the world in two particular aspects, namely “professional and technical workers” and “enrolment in tertiary education”.

Indeed, higher education and technology, particularly digital technologies have empowered China’s women entrepreneurs more than ever. Many Chinese female entrepreneurs believe that the digital economy lowers entry barriers and provides a more gender-neutral business environment (36Kr and Girlup). [8] The BAT provides an important enabling ecosystem for their business.

The education-dividend and digital-dividend, undoubtedly, give us many inspirations and role-models for how gender equality could be improved. They represent a new generation of women entrepreneurship, moving from “poverty push” and “survival driven” towards “opportunity pull” and “skill-driven”.     

These inspiring role-models and exceptional success stories are indeed a promising kick-start to narrow gender gaps on the long and demanding journey of enhancing women’s economic participation and opportunity as well as their education attainment. 

A much broader inclusiveness and a much bolder approach to changing the traditional perceptions of the role of women in family and in society are needed if women in China, in Sweden and in the world, together, to hold up half of the sky. Or simply put “we must raise both the ceiling and the floor”. [9]

  Nannan Lundin & Jessica Zhang


[1] https://www.yicaiglobal.com/news/chinese-women-contribute-more-gdp-overseas-counterparts

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/11/women-china-tech/545588/

[3] Education Statistics, 2017. Ministry of Education of China.

[4] https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1002051/is-gender-equality-at-chinese-colleges-a-sham%3F

[5] https://technode.com/2018/06/01/women-tech-equality/

[6] https://technode.com/2018/03/08/china-women-entrepreneurship-statistics/

[7] http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2018.pdf

[8] https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/hong-kong/article/2160786/dare-fail-why-chinas-women-entrepreneurs-are

[9] Sheryl Sandberg, “Lean in: women, work and the will to lead”.