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It’s axiomatic that China’s economy has been the world’s fastest-growing for decades, that its markets represent unprecedented scale, and that it is becoming more adept at creating new and innovative technologies and business models. China-watchers know that central planners are steering the economy away from a production basis to one more sustainably rooted in consumption.
And amid this potential-rich flux, China’s women have staged a feat unmatched in any of the world’s more established countries: they are rapidly making themselves into wealthy businesspeople through smart entrepreneurship.
The numbers speak for themselves.
The world’s richest self-made woman is a Chinese entrepreneur. Even as the economy slows in the face of the tariff war, Wu Yajun, 55, has been named Richest Self-Made Woman in the World in the Hurun Report for 2019. The ‘Property Queen’ of China logged a fortune of US$9.8bn – a 13 per cent rise on 2018. Of the 89 self-made female billionaires in the world this year, 57 per cent are from China – 51 women entrepreneurs whose net worth is over US$1 billion. This is three times as many as in the USA.
In March 2017, before the tariff war began to bite, Forbes listed the world’s 56 self-made women billionaires, of whom 25 were from China and Hong Kong; their total wealth amounted to US$61bn.
Driving women forward
What lies behind this remarkable record? Edward Tse, founder and CEO of Gao Feng Advisory Company, says: “Both the women’s liberation movement in the West and communist China’s promotion of gender equality, especially workplace equality, have had some influence.” It has been a seismic shift: in China before 1950, strict gender roles meant there were no female entrepreneurs.
But now, education for women has improved. Following a law in 1986 making at least nine years’ education compulsory for all children, female students comprised 51.4 per cent of the university student population in 2012. And students who study overseas are increasingly bringing their knowledge back to China: in 2018, 519,400 overseas scholars returned to China, 39,000 more than in 2017. One poll found that 48 per cent of students planned to return to China after work experience abroad and 28 per cent planned a return to China immediately after graduation, up from 25 per cent in 2018 and 24 per cent in 2017.
“Women entrepreneurs in China today tend to concentrate in the 21–30 age group.” – Edward Tse, Gao Feng Advisory Company
Tse points out that in the past, women generally started out in state-owned enterprises; now they are more likely to go straight into creating start-ups – and they are starting younger. “Women entrepreneurs in China today tend to concentrate in the 21–30 age group. The predominant age group in the national female workforce is 36-45.”
And younger women are more comfortable with new technology – not to mention perceiving its business potential. While the pioneering female entrepreneurs started out in more traditional sectors like real estate and logistics, the new generation is focused on the internet, robotics and app-enabled services. “These industries have lower barriers to entry and a more gender-neutral environment,” says Tse.
More still to be done
While the numbers are compelling, some barriers still linger. “Women start-up founders are often underestimated and thus overlooked for financing opportunities, and businesswomen, like women in other professions, are expected to commit to family and child-rearing responsibilities,” says Tse.
Natalie Au, Advocacy & Communications Associate at the UN Girls’ Education Initiative, says: “Traditional assessments of credit risk rely on land ownership, credit history, and availability of collateral, disproportionately disadvantaging women and often putting them in a catch-22 situation.”
She adds that ingrained societal attitudes toward gender still need to change. Women still face pressure from family and government to marry and start a family, while businesses have yet to relinquish perceptions of leadership roles as reserved for men.
‘Closing China’s gender gap in the workplace to the Asia Pacific average could improve GDP by US$1 trillion.”- Edward Tse, Gao Feng Advisory Company
To remedy this, Au points to a multi-pronged approach that incorporates dedicated government policy, NGO projects, the influence of international corporations, and women’s self-help networks to ensure China’s women entrepreneurs fulfil their potential. “McKinsey pointed out in 2015 that closing China’s gender gap in the workplace to the Asia Pacific average could improve GDP by 12% – or US$1 trillion – by 2025,” she says.
China’s women entrepreneurs are showing the rest of the world what’s possible, but they’re the first to point out that more can be done – and how to go about it. With such an impressive lead on the rest of the world, China can show slower-growing economies a compelling case for levelling the playing field for women entrepreneurs.