Chinese female executives face a variety of management challenges in a traditionally patriarchal society — including discriminatory hiring practices, balancing the different needs of both male and female employees, and managing men who are unaccustomed to female leaders. On the surface, it appears a variety of influences — such as the Communist Party’s efforts to promote gender equality, China’s rapid modernization and the One-child Policy — have weakened the hold of traditional perceptions that relegated women to a subordinate position in society.

It may appear that Chinese women have an excellent opportunity to climb the corporate ladder. However, in reality, traditional gender roles and biases in China are still very tangible. Practical financial considerations and the changing structure of China’s family have encouraged female participation in the workforce, but ultimately have had little effect on eroding restrictive gender roles. In fact, modern trends appear to have expanded Chinese women’s obligations both in the workplace and at home. The modern female Chinese manager faces not only the professional difficulty of managing teams in a society traditionally biased against women, but also the need to fulfill familial obligations.

The pressure to make ends meet in a country with soaring inflation and steadily rising costs of living has thrust millions of women into the labor force. Historically, China’s economic environment created a context in which women needed to work to keep the family running. This trend has continued to accelerate. The Cultural Revolution paved the way for women to break past traditional family roles so they could labor in the fields among men. Those women did it all — professionals or laborers by day, housekeepers and perhaps mothers by night.

Today, many families rely on two incomes in order to survive. Against the backdrop of an increasing wealth gap in China, women at the bottom of the economic ladder continue the quest to feed their families, and those at the top strive to attain more than their neighbors. One cannot conclude that greater female participation in the workforce and an increasing number of female managers in China are the result of more progressive gender attitudes. Rather, economic necessity has driven these changes and has left aspiring Chinese women facing many of the same challenges.

Communist Gender Equality

In a developing country that faced deep economic problems for many years, everyone who was able to work, worked. Universal employability went hand-in-hand with Mao’s notion that everyone was equal as China worked toward a socialist utopia. Women broke through their traditional roles at home to put rice on the table, but this was a necessity in the 20th century as a way to fuel the family’s economic engine.

China’s One-child Policy was introduced in 1978, when the country’s rapidly increasing life expectancy and reduced infant mortality rates indicated a risk of overpopulation. Although the policy is no longer enforced as strictly, it is still clearly a factor in the reduced birth rates in China. According to China’s state-run media outlet, the People’s Daily, since its enactment more than 30 years ago, the One-child Policy has prevented 400 million births.

This policy has forced a revision of Confucian family values toward parenting. The traditional Chinese gender hierarchy would lead parents to focus more attention and resources on raising sons to the detriment of daughters. In a one-child household, all attention is focused on that one child, regardless of gender. As Elizabeth Schimel, executive vice president and chief digital officer at publishing company Meredith in Beijing, noted, “The One-child Policy has been a great equalizer…. If you only have one child, family expectations land on [the child], regardless of gender.” That said, the Chinese government more recently built in some flexibility for families whose first child is a daughter, suggesting that the preference for a male child is still very strong. Currently, more than 50% of Chinese households are allowed to have a second child if their first is a daughter, according to China’s population planning agency.

The One-child Policy has also shaped social expectations for women in the workplace. It affects hiring decisions for employers because they know that most women will have only one child. Indeed, Chinese employers often discriminate against women who plan to have children. While illegal, the practice is hard to control. China’s generous paid maternity policies — women have up to 98 days of paid leave in Beijing — contribute to employers’ discriminatory hiring. But the expectation that women would have only one child each also changed women’s perceptions of their own careers. Alice Au, a senior executive at executive search firm Spencer Stuart in Beijing, said that as a career-minded Chinese woman, “You can have your one child and you’re done, so you can basically go on with your life.”

It may be tempting to view the One-child Policy as a liberator of women’s time, allowing them to focus on their careers. However, even if the Chinese professional female has a successful career, she is still expected to fulfill the traditional domestic roles of wife and mother. “When I come home, my husband expects me to take care of household duties and raise our son, even if I make more than he does,” said As Li Hong, a real estate executive at Vantone group. This is because China has a long history and traditional culture, she noted, which means that these gender roles are not only deeply entrenched, but also are difficult to eradicate.

The many discussions about gender roles in the West signify awareness. But this dialogue is nonexistent across many spheres in China, which suggests there is room for the evolution and development of the conversation. In addition, the lack of gender-equality rules and regulations in the workplace makes it easy for discriminatory practices to take hold.

Clearly more and more ambitious Chinese women are entering the workforce. Because many families have only one child, it is quite common for mothers to outsource daycare to cheap nannies or their own parents (who often live with them), allowing the women to focus more on their careers. Although this may appear to be an empowering factor, many women work because of financial obligations to their households. On a nationwide scale, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s granted women more equal access to employment but did not trump the traditional neo-Confucian gender roles that limit women’s status. Chinese female professionals might receive help during the day, but they still have family obligations when they return home. Chinese “soccer dads” have yet to arrive.

Establishing Credibility with Peers and Superiors

In addition to the challenge of balancing family responsibilities with growing professional expectations, Chinese female executives also face a number of gender-related challenges in the workplace, which can take the form of direct discriminatory practices as well as more subtle ones.

In China, the onus is on female managers to establish their credibility and gain respect in the workplace. These managers need “to be seen as objective and all about the business,” striking a balance between being “appropriately personal and appropriately respectful of hierarchies,” according to Schimel. To compensate for this perception, female executives need to rely on business acumen and a grasp of their particular market, product or opportunity to “[earn] authority through expertise and command of the business.” Male executives, on the other hand, are given the benefit of the doubt more often and do not need to establish respect with the same sense of urgency; they just “assume they have [the respect and authority],” Schimel noted.

If females do not manage these perceptions and establish their authority quickly, awkward situations can occur. In many cases, male employees in China are quite surprised to have a female manager. For example, when Rachel Kot was introduced to several new teams at Alcatel Lucent, the large French telecommunications equipment firm, numerous employees mistook her for the secretary, despite her senior status.

Thus, women need superior soft skills when leading Chinese teams. Schimel suggested that “women need to be stronger [than men] in the areas of communication and [goal-setting]. Women need to excel. There needs to be no question of authority.” Women also need to have great emotional intelligence while leading teams, and should spend more time “building consensus quietly as opposed to open public forums,” according to Nancy Liu, president of Forevermark, the brand of De Beers Diamond in China. Women tend to build consensus with a bottom-up approach, whereas men utilize a more top-down method. In addition, female executives must learn to read between the lines, especially in Chinese societies, where employees are reluctant to disagree openly with their superiors.

Liu added that female managers “need to learn signals and then leave an open door for [employees] to come and have that discussion with you later on.” She also emphasized the need to help male subordinates maintain “face” by not publicly refuting their ideas or criticizing their work. Successful female executives are also extremely good at leveraging their feminine strengths in the workplace by being soft but firm. Liu likened their management style to an “iron hand in a velvet glove.”

Another clear difference between managing men and women in the Chinese workplace is the employees’ approach toward establishing relationships with their managers. “Chinese females look for female mentors and want to develop more personal relationships [whereas the men do not],” according to Schimel. She noted that while men are respectful of their female managers, they do not want to get close and maintain a “typical boss and employee relationship,” whereas “for young women, having a woman as a boss really means a lot to them.” Some observers suggest this may be because women are more relationship-oriented and men more task-oriented. As Alcatel Lucent’s Rachel Kot commented about an ongoing gender study involving focus groups in her company, “Women believe having the right mentor will help [them] to accelerate more, whereas men believe having the right business acumen will have more of an effect.”

Female managers in China feel that managing male employees sometimes entails a balancing act between stroking their egos and optimizing business decisions, according to some women. Li noted that she allows her male employees to implement minor decisions she disagrees with from time to time because she knows it will be too damaging to their egos otherwise. On issues of significant consequence, she will insist on the most optimal decision, but, generally speaking, she feels she needs to give male employees more breathing room to feel empowered.

Similarly, Schimel described an experience where she managed a Chinese team that was led by a male manager, and realized she had to make an effort to empower him so he would not feel destabilized. In general, these situations are more delicate in China than in the West. “In Asia, these moments are fraught with a little bit more risk and discomfort, so it is harder to get back on good footing afterwards [if you make a mistake],” Schimel said.

Female managers may have to be extra careful to win the respect of their male employees and manage their egos, but managing female employees presents a different challenge because they are often more timid. As Kot noted, “[Conversations with male employees] are more structured, and [much of the] time [men] expect a lot more respect for what they are saying, which is great, because coaching them will be easier. As long as the bottom line is set, you just let them brainstorm their creativity out. [Yet] when it comes to the women, they need more encouragement to speak what is on their mind. Men do not have that problem.”

Career Perceptions

Varying perceptions toward their careers create distinct differences between male and female employees and, therefore, different types of management challenges. Generally speaking, Chinese men feel much more pressure to succeed. In a survey released by the Civil Affairs Ministry of China in early 2012, 80% of single women who were interviewed said a man “does not deserve” to have a girlfriend if he makes less than US$650 a month. Considering the average salary for urban residents in China was only US$300 in 2010, this bar is not set low. Even if a Chinese man does achieve at least a minimal salary, the pressure for societal advancement is still hard to ignore. Therefore, it is not uncommon for the man to feel sensitive about his career.

“In China, you might see your peers at another firm gaining a title before you or advancing more quickly. This creates a lot of pressure,” said Au. “You may think, ‘My company is not doing right by me, or there must be something wrong with me.’ This is true of men and women, but less so of women…. When I look at my managers, many of the male associates probably get a lot more peer pressure than their female counterparts. That peer pressure in society translates into titles, how they need to be treated at work in the office. This has resulted in the tendency for males to be continually changing jobs and looking for a better opportunity.” Kristy Sheng, the Asia Pacific business director of Hewlett Packard’s special printings group in Beijing, agreed, adding that “female professionals [in China] are more stable than men.”

However, while men may feel pressure to succeed, women experience much more traditional societal pressures, such as “filial piety, duty to your parents, etc.,” said Liu. These pressures also extend to child rearing: “Fathers receive less judgment for how [their] children perform.” Sheng agreed: “You never see males who say, ‘I want to have a child, so I cannot take the promotion.'”

Female managers in China — still a relatively small number — face acute challenges both at home and in the workplace. Balancing the demands presented by rapid economic growth, a changing social structure and evolving gender attitudes creates significant challenges for both female managers and direct reports. Yet through strong soft skills and a commitment to their expertise, many of these women have established their credibility despite these obstacles.

This article was written by Emma Gow, Justin Knapp, Katherine Littlefield and Yinyin Wu, members of the Lauder Class of 2014.