Panel discussion on women in today´s society during the visit of swiss state secretary, Mrs. Pascale Baeriswyl, in china

Pauline Houl’s comments to various questions:

This year will see the 40th anniversary of reforms and opening up. In your view, what is the single most significant change relating to women/women’s position that has been brought by the introduction of the reforms and opening up in china ?

We should know early in history, men have been seen as the core of the family and dominated the Chinese society while women were deprived of all rights and were present mainly to serve men, they had to subordinate to their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Chinese women did not have rights and privileges. Sons were preferred to daughters. Women in Chinese society occupied a low and degraded status. Women were treated as property of men and did not have equal rights or status.

From the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 to the present, the situation of Chinese women has gone through three major changes. The new China recognized women' s contribution and importance to society. Women were legally given equal status to men, with equal access to employment, education and political power. In Mao's China, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) were established and the labour market abolished. There was no labour market. Everyone was a Iife-long member of a work unit. The work unit was not a profit-seeking organization and labour was not considered to be a 'cost' in its operation. 

The economic reform started in 1978, while on the one hand providing women with more alternatives and a better material life, on the other hand reduced gender equality. Traditional attitudes about the inferiority of women, which had been repressed by Mao, have resurfaced with the economic reforms. The economic reform starting in 1978, have changed how SOEs operate. 

The efficiency oriented SOEs after reform, have been trying to reduce costs to survive in a competitive market. Social responsibilities such as day care and maternity leave are regarded as financial burdens to enterprises. The law entitles women to such rights, but the cost is carried by individual enterprises who are striving to reduce their costs. Therefore enterprises avoid hiring women as much as possible.

These functions have in many instances been put on women and such burdens have reduced women's social status and access to employment, education and political power. Functions such as day care and maternity leave are regarded as burdens. This has increased discrimination against women when hiring and some people go back to traditional ideas to look for a theoretical basis for justification of their socially irresponsible behavior. Therefore women back to household tasks, reducing the gender equality.

What can we do, as individual, in pushing for gender equality?

First we should consider women’s rights as human’s right. Our attitude in our daily life can contribute to eliminate all the prejudice against women and stereotypes which are in every society, whether in the most developed country or in the less develop country. The indifference is the worst plague in our society. This attitude can be taught since very young, that’s why education play an important role. Because gender inequality can only be solved with the participation of men. To create a virtuous circle, gender equality awareness should start at school from the very young age, within the family and evolve across in every part of our society. As an individual we are also a citizen who can raise this awareness at the governmental level. But it’s easier to say than to do, in their daily routine people consider this is not the most important issue and it is a permanent struggle for an individual who wants to push gender equality cause. We should insist on the fact that gender equality is not a women caprice and has a real impact on our GDP.  The world’s GDP would be much higher with the participation of the women in the economy to the same extent as men.

What do you think about the future of Chinese women in China?

China has opened up a lot on the questions related to women compared to a decade ago. For a country with a large population such as China, it takes more time to see the progress. There is still lot of work to do but as of today there are lots of women’s groups of discussion about women leadership in China. The awareness of women is stronger and stronger. It is sometimes difficult to present a western documentary no matter about woman or other topics without knowing the exact reason such as the document on... It is difficult to know.

You have lived in China and Switzerland. Do you feel women are being treated differently?

Yes women are treated differently in China. Depending of what you expect and your education background, it can be positively or negatively perceived. The mentality has evolved across the time; more and more men in China are looking for active women more than a housewife with not too active and too independent. There is still a stereotype of this ideal woman who should not be as active as a man. In a conservative society it is deep rooted that man is supposed to provide the resources and this is also what many women expect here. For example, when you go to the restaurant with a man, the women never pay the bill here, almost everything is paid by the men. If a woman grows up in this environment, it seems normal to her and she will probably enjoy this kind of treatment. The man here is also supposed to carry the bag for his girlfriend. I talk about the tiny bag. For educated western women this kind of situation could be embarrassing sometimes. 

Chinese women set a new standard. Unlike western women, Chinese women didn't have any model and they follow their own way. On one hand they are more aware of their capabilities and, on the other hand they must struggle with the deep rooted Chinese tradition within a male dominant society are very aggressive in terms of business because they have much more to prove to the Chinese company.

In western countries, there is a stereotype of women leaders, for example, women leaders in the west should be less feminine to be respected. There is no such stereotype in China, they manage to be very feminine and strong at the same time.

It seems to me that Chinese women are doing well in business. Half of the top ten self-made women come from China. Is this the case in your view? If so, why?

It’s encouraging in a country where the one-child policy that began in the 80s has heightened a preference for male children and led to long-standing neglect of girls’ education and career prospects. We should also put his figure into perspective. The intelligence is not the monopole of men. It was proven that women perform better at school although they lack of confidence compare to their male counterparts in the business and in the professional world. There are women who overcome this lack of confidence and perform as well as men in business. In a country with a large population such as China it is obvious the population of such women is statistically higher. Still, it’s hard for Chinese women to start their own businesses. Many Chinese women start businesses because they can’t find employment elsewhere—and often in the lower-paying informal economy. Women are still shut out of male-dominated networks in a business culture where guanxi, or personal connections, matter greatly. On top of that, they’re under pressure to marry and settle down before the age of 30, and have more trouble than men getting financing for new businesses.

How can private section try in promoting gender equality?

The private sector employs a significant proportion of the labour force worldwide and is therefore an essential partner in increasing women’s economic empowerment, for instance, through inclusive hiring and promotion policies, women’s workforce development, and allocating procurement spending to women-owned businesses. At the same time, women’s economic empowerment brings significant benefits to the companies that foster gender equality.

“Gender diversity in the workplace should be viewed as a business issue, not a gender issue.”

Women are still challenging traditional barriers to representation and leadership in the private sector, Female leaders are still under-represented in most countries and industries. In order to address the gender equality issue, we need first to understand where the reasons come.

There are two main reasons why women are under-represented. 

The first reason: the lack of role models and the organizational support. Male is dominant from the ranks of middle management to higher echelons, especially at the top level such as CEO and they’ve become comfortable with the status quo, they don’t feel any need for change. They are less committed to gender diversity, and we can’t get there without the collaboration of men.

The second reason comes more from women themselves: women have difficulties in dealing with both, family and career, Most women still retreat from the workforce – even temporarily - for the sake of having a family.

In order to change the status quo and get more female at highest level in corporate, Women themselves have to WANT success, power and the chance to make decisions. These three elements are not strong points in women.

Lack of confidence, they need more support building their confidence to feel like they can be a leader.

The power game is one of the key factors in the workplace, men like power while many women do not know how to play the power game that is often practiced in large organizations that facilitate male careers Women still have an ambivalent relationship with power. Women always struggle with the notion of power and with having it. Many still cannot find a role model to teach them that power in combination with responsibility is not a curse, but can be a blessing.

Now talking about the characteristic: Female leaders are supposed to be soft and hard at the same time. Many female executives battle with the challenge of combining those characteristics which are expected of women (such as nurturing others) with characteristics expected of a leader (self-assuredness and being in control).

To promote the diversity, organizations should put more female at the board of directors, at certain number to influence the dominant culture in a group.

Studies from several organizations – amongst them the business consultancy McKinsey and Catalyst, the American lobby organizations for more women in business – prove that diverse management teams are significantly more successful. Financially, companies with the highest proportion of women board directors outperform those with the fewest significantly.

80 percent of all purchases are conducted by women. So it cannot be good business if everything from R&D to marketing and sales is dominated by men. So both intelligent organizations and administrations need to leverage female input in the business world.

Companies should attempt to hire and to develop women for executive positions. Showcase your company's successful women.

In addition to put more female at top positions, we have also many others actions for example establishing the guidelines

  • Provide training on gender equality to management, to build the awareness to the entire organizations
  • Provide employees with quality, on-site child care facilities
  • Publicize your efforts to promote gender equality. Whether it's on your company website or in newspapers…
  • Implement some policies for example: Establish a policy that ensures that men and women are compensated equally for performing the same work.
  • Establish a policy that ensures the nondiscriminatory policies that apply to the company's employees also apply to all levels of company management