A step in the right direction

A step in the right direction

Mainland women are making theur mark among the world's rich, yet gender equality is still far off

Mao Zedong once said "women hold up half the sky". There's little doubt that, since feudal times, the status of women in China has improved. A recent report reveals more than half the world's top 20 wealthiest, self-made women are Chinese. Yet some say China has far to go in achieving true gender equality.

The latest Hurun Rich List from Hurun Report magazine shows 11 of the world's top 20 wealthiest, self-made women, including the top three, are Chinese.

Topping the list is Zhang Yin, 53, founder and director of paper recycling company Nine Dragons Paper (Holdings), who is valued at US$5.6 billion. Zhang co-founded the company with her husband and younger brother in 1995.

In second place is Wu Yajun, 46, the chief executive of property development company Longfor Properties, with a net worth of US$4.1 billion. She was an engineer and a journalist, and started developing real estate in her hometown of Chongqing .

Beijinger Chen Lihua, 69, third at US$4 billion, was born to a poor family and began a furniture maintenance business in 1976. She worked in Hong Kong real estate in the 1980s before launching a property company back home.

American media mogul Oprah Winfrey is ninth, on US$2.3 billion, and J.K. Rowling, the British Harry Potter author, just makes the top 20, with US$1 billion.

"China is the world's clear leader for women in business," said Rupert Hoogewerf, the British founder and compiler of the list. "This is a story that deserves more attention."

A Financial Times report suggested that the success of wealthy Chinese women might be partly because of cultural factors, such as affordable childcare. Traditionally, grandparents in China look after grandchildren, and, in contrast with the West, there is little social stigma attached to women that leave their children to go out to work.

Reactions to the list were mixed. Some people said it showed how the Chinese could set a good example to the West. Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail said women "should look to China for enlightenment" after concluding that the composition of Forbes' 100 most powerful women in the world suggested that women should marry the rich and powerful to gain influence.

Yet other comments said China still has far to go to achieve gender equality. A recent opinion piece in China's Global Times said that it would be misleading if the list was regarded as representing the "true picture" of China's development. "There is still plenty of room to improve the status of women in China. In some remote areas, males are still more highly valued than women ... Baby girls are still abandoned in some underdeveloped places," it said.

Evelyn Ng Gaik-hoon, co-convenor of the Women's Studies Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong's Centre of Asian Studies, said there was concern over China's incidence of female infanticide and the reportedly high suicide rates among females in some rural areas. "It's a different world" for females in the countryside compared with their counterparts in urban areas, she said. Even in cities, while some women were very successful, many more worked long hours in factories for very poor wages.

A recent article in The New York Times reported on the experiences of women with different socio-economic backgrounds and said that "gender discrimination is widespread" in China.

Quoting experts, the article said that few women dared to sue employers for unfair hiring practices or dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy or sexual harassment.

Under the Hurun Rich List, the average wealth of the top 50 richest women is still only a third of that of the top 50 richest men. "It's good to celebrate [the] success stories," says Ng.

"But you want to temper that... we need to talk about other types of women who are trying very hard to make a living."



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