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Women and Work Life Management in China

By Melissa J. Anderson

Recently Catalyst published a series of reports on talent management in Asia. Its study, “Expanding Work-Life Perspectives: Talent Management in China,” revealed that women and men in China have high expectations when it comes to their careers.

Laura Sabattini, author of the report, says that Western companies operating in an Asian context need to get a better understanding of the cultural issues in the global localities in which they operate. She writes, “Implementing work-life programs requires the thoughtful integration of a global approach with local customs to ensure the strategies make sense in employees’ day-to-day lives.”

For example, China’s one-child policy has had a considerable impact on the career ambitions of women, as well as the childcare needs of parents.

Ambition and Work Life

Based on the input of 300 high potentials working in European and US companies in China, Sabattini found that most individuals hope to move to the next level in the next five years (92% of women and 90% of men).

While the majority of respondents, both men and women, said they were more focused on the work side of the work life equation, considerably more men said they felt this way (69% of women and 81% of men). More women than men said they had a dual focus on work and family (23% of women and 13% of men).

Sabattini continued, “About half of respondents were satisfied with the level of flexibility their company afforded. However, women were less satisfied than men, i.e., they were less likely than men to agree that their workplace provided enough flexibility to manage work and family demands.”

Half of women surveyed were dissatisfied with the flexibility provided at their companies, while only 37% of men said they were not satisfied with their company’s flexibility offerings.

Professional Women in China

Catalyst explained that women are increasingly prevalent in the Chinese workplace.

“With women representing nearly 50 percent of the workforce, China has the highest rate of women’s employment participation among Asian countries. Recent benchmarking data among Asian multinational companies shows that the representation of women at the middle and senior leadership levels has increased considerably since 2009.”

Part of this change is due to China’s one child policy enacted in the 1979. In the Center for Diversity Innovation’s study The Battle for Female Talent in China [PDF], Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ripa Rashid explain that parents of daughters have raised them to be increasingly ambitious.

They write:

“Introduced in 1979 as a strict population control measure, the policy has had important ramifications for the status of women, in particular in the urban areas where it was most heavily enforced. Women in their twenties and thirties today, as only children and hence the “one hope in the family,” recall being pushed as hard as their male counterparts to achieve academically and economically.”

Hewlett and Rashid suggest that one positive outcome of the policy is that work-life pressures are decreased insofar as parents have fewer children, and grandparents usually become caretakers.

Sabattini explains further:

“The accessibility of low-cost childcare and extended family networks provide resources for both mothers and fathers to manage work and family responsibilities. Part-time arrangements are not very popular or available as a work option in this region. Some have argued that concepts such as ‘work-life balance’ or ‘work-family conflict’ are somewhat foreign to the Chinese work culture; and managing work and personal life assumes a very different meaning than it does in other cultural contexts and requires different approaches.”

Nevertheless, the Catalyst study showed that women were much more likely than men to report work-life challenges, which suggests that there are still many cultural and familial expectations about which gender handles family responsibilities, despite the commensurate levels of ambition between the genders. Companies looking to get the most out of their high potential female employees should work to find ways to ease these unique challenges.

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