working women

Why Does the U.S. Lag China in Female Senior Management Numbers?

Last year, accountancy firm Grant Thornton released the results of a global survey regarding women in the workforce and found international differences that were quite striking.  Certain countries that are often held up as paragons of work-life balance and gender equality (e.g. the Netherlands) fared worse than countries that westerners don’t typically think of being egalitarian (e.g. Botswana and China) when it came to the number of women in “senior management positions”.  I’m not sure how to evaluate the veracity of this study since it wasn’t possible to find a definition of “senior management”, for example.  However, let’s just give the study the benefit of the doubt as it did seem to discuss a large number of the C-suite and top officers you’d typically think of (e.g. head of HR, head of marketing, General Counsel, CFO, etc).

What could be causing such surprising differences between countries?   To make the question more manageable, let’s just focus on China versus the U.S.  While I don’t think there is a silver-bullet answer to this question, I felt compelled to search for theories.  To broadly refer to “cultural differences” could cover everything from education to family structures and employment laws.  So here are a few (completely untested) theories I unearthed in various commentary, subsequent news articles, and the report itself:

  • China’s one-child policy.  The theory goes that since women have fewer children, their jobs and careers face fewer competing interests.  One issue with this hypothesis is that the policy is quite leaky and many well-to-do families have more than one child.  Another way of interpreting this theory is that because a family invests a lot in their one child, if that child is a girl, parents may raise her to compete / achieve to her highest potential and be more “gender neutral” in their expectations.
  • Chinese multi-generational family culture.  Chinese family living structures provide a support network at home.  Unlike a lot of the western world, grandparents and extended family are heavily involved with childcare and all sorts of domestic duties.  So even if a woman has more than one child, parents or in-laws may be freeing their adult children to focus on their jobs and careers.  Taiwan (which fares worse than China on the scorecard) is a counterpoint to this theory since it essentially has the same family culture as in China, minus the communism and one-child policy.
  • A communist legacy of treating men and women equally, as comrades and workers of the world.  This is vaguely compelling except that the highest ranking political leadership in China has been largely male.  
  • Relatedly, education in communist countries tends to be pretty egalitarian with respect to gender (and class) though I’m not sure this explanation would explain more than a couple of the other the top 10 countries on Grant Thornton’s ranking.
  • What about employment policies?  Its interesting to note that over 70% of Chinese companies do not have flexible working policies, so this means that Chinese women achieve their management success without at least one obvious corporate benefit.  And countries like Denmark and Finland in which over 90% of companies have very flexible work policies do not fare particularly well (23% and 24% of women are in senior management positions in those countries, respectively).

In short, I’m not convinced there is any silver-bullet answer or that any of these theories are particularly compelling.  If you can think of anything else, please leave a comment!


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