To understand the changing role of women in China, consider the runaway success of a novel titled Du Lala’s Rise. The story chronicles the adventures of the fictional Miss Du as she moves up the corporate ladder. The book spent 141 weeks on the Chinese bestseller list and spawned two sequels, one of this year’s top films at the box office, and an online drama series that has had more than 100 million page views since starting in mid-August. One fan, Liu Danhui, a 28-year-old with a marketing job at a foreign company, says she admires Du’s persistence and believes that “there will be more and more women like her in China in the future.” In fact, there are so many people like Liu that Du Lala’s Rise has left in its wake a thriving subgenre of Du-inspired literature portraying the aspirations and dilemmas of the country’s ambitious young urbanites.
Decades after Mao Zedong declared that “women hold up half the sky,” the success of Du Lala and her peers reflects a curious fact about women in China: they appear to be far more ambitious than their counterparts in the United States. According to a study completed earlier this year by the New York–based Center for Work-Life Policy, just over one third of all college-educated American women describe themselves as very ambitious. In China that figure is closer to two thirds. What’s more, over 75 percent of women in China aspire to hold a top corporate job, compared with just over half in the U.S., and 77 percent of Chinese women participate in the workforce, compared with 69 percent in the U.S.
One reason for this is that China is changing at such a blistering speed that new opportunities are becoming available to skilled workers of both genders. Ripa Rashid, a senior vice president at the Center for Work-Life Policy, says the rapid growth “creates this excitement,” and builds on a cultural and historical legacy in which Chinese women are not just encouraged to participate in the workforce, they are expected to. When the authors of the Work-Life study conducted focus groups, one of the things they frequently heard was that communism “always emphasized that women can do whatever men can do.” Indeed, for decades in China, the communist government has provided equal access to education. “Mao’s revolution inflicted enormous pain upon society,” says Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But it did empower women.”
One result has been a generation of women and girls who believe they belong among China’s power elite. In the U.S., that shift followed decades of pitched battles over equality and women’s rights. It was considered a big deal, for instance, when Madeleine Albright became the first female secretary of state in 1990s. Likewise, Nancy Pelosi’s rise to become the speaker of the House was seen as monumental. In China, though, there are fewer institutional barriers for women trying to succeed professionally, says Judi Kilachand, an executive director at the Asia Society, which organized a conference on women in leadership in Hong Kong in June. Female leaders are therefore viewed as more common. One of the most familiar public figures responsible for the country’s economic openness is the now retired vice premier Wu Yi, who trained as a petroleum engineer before a career in government that included negotiating World Trade Organization admission for China. Today China has a greater percentage of women in its Parliament—21.3 percent—than the U.S. does in Congress.
That’s true, too, in the executive suite. Grant Thornton International, the tax consultancy, found that roughly eight out of 10 companies in China had wom-en in senior management roles, compared with approximately half in the European Union and two thirds in the U.S. Similarly, in China, 31 percent of top executives are female, compared with 20 percent in America. One of the most visible real-estate tycoons is Zhang Xin, who along with her husband controls the Sohu property empire. Tellingly, half of the 14 female billionaires on Forbes’s 2010 list of the world’s wealthiest people were from mainland China. So now, as cities throughout the country sprout new skyscrapers and roads clog up with luxury cars, it’s relatively easy for women to envision themselves as a key part of that picture of prosperity.
Part of the difference may also be that women in the U.S. are often stigmatized if they express considerable ambition. Because they have already achieved a certain level of equality and material success, the assumption, many say, is that women should sacrifice only so much in pursuit of their careers. When Hillary Clinton ran for president, for example, she was labeled by some as overly zealous to take the White House. “A lot of women in the U.S. are incredibly ambitious, but they are too embarrassed to admit it,” says Rosalind Hudnell, the head of diversity and inclusion at Intel Corp.
Another factor: women in China are aided in the pursuit of their careers by the fact that child care is easily accessible. In the U.S., as in much of the Western world, many women live far from parents and siblings, and feel enormous anxiety about working while sending children to day care. In many instances, educated mothers stay home or step off the corporate ladder to take care of their children. Not so in China. Collective and state-run day-care centers are located near workplaces, and the emphasis is on working to provide a good life for one’s child, or on what the Work-Life Center’s Rashid calls the “pragmatic aspects” of child care, versus the emotional response to allowing someone else to take care of one’s children.
On top of all that, ambition has become a critical survival skill in navigating the opportunities and challenges of living in a society that is growing and changing faster than perhaps any other country. Younger Chinese women are feeling the pressure to “make it”—not necessarily just by the measures of a man’s world, but to keep up in an environment where housing prices in major cities have doubled every few years and where competition for everything is rife. In other words, in this fast-paced world, ambition is seen as a matter of necessity. And those who don’t have it, the thinking goes, may ultimately get left behind.
With Isaac Stone Fish in Beijing