Journalist and broadcaster: human rights, social issues, gender, global affairs, politics, arts and culture. Poet. Trustee, Booker Prize Foundation. Outreach worker in prisons and detention centres. 5th book, Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London, out now.
Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s book about how she battled corporate sexism to rise to the top at Facebook, has struck a chord with young, ambitious women in China. “I saw Sandberg’s TED talk in March 2013,” says one of Lean In Beijing’s founding members, Allison Ye. “I was shocked because I had never seen a successful Chinese female leader talk with such openness and honesty about how exactly she got there. It was refreshing. Her message was that we can be responsible for our situation and we can control our lives. It was very positive.”
The talk triggered the formation of Lean in Beijing, which sent a survey [PDF]to more than 500 women, asking about their aspirations, their careers and the challenges they experienced in their lives. It revealed that 90% of respondents had never seen a professional women’s network – and wanted one. “We had 60 to 70 women at our first meeting, and every one had a story to tell. Things they wouldn’t tell to their own friends and families, they would tell to strangers,” says Ye. The Lean In message of female solidarity, boosted by speaker events, high social media connectivity, consciousness raising 'circles' and the open discussion of everyday sexism has proven so popular and necessary that Lean In has spread to several Chinese cities far beyond Beijing. Even within the capital, Lean In members have founded their own offshoots like the Lean In Thinktank led by Yolanda Wang and Maggie Zhang and the six Lean In College mentoring schemes founded by Alicia Lui. The mentoring scheme involves bringing in younger professional women to be mentors to college age students, Lui tells me. “Mentoring is a really great way to work through relationship, career and family pressures. At our last event in May, 150 students showed up and we had 15 mentors, all from different industries and with different interests. After the event, lots more professional women wanted to be a part of the network as mentors.”
We are meeting up at a time when gender inequality is back with a vengeance in China, with ancient stereotypes about femininity, double standards about gender roles, endemic and normalised violence against women, media misrepresentation and longstanding pressures on women meeting new corporate injustices around equal pay, property ownership, female leadership and opportunity, as chronicled in Leta Hong Fincher’s brilliant and vital book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.
Lean In Beijing’s discussions aren’t just about strategising within a corporate context, combating institutional sexism, why prominent Chinese women business leaders stand at less than 5% or why women are paid less than men for the same job. “It’s [also about] the pressure of getting married young, the pressure that’s coming from all directions,” says Ye, “not just the family but the media, the government, society. Every young woman in a family is pressured to get married really young. The message behind it is that a woman cannot be happy by herself, she needs to be someone’s wife, someone’s mother in order to be fulfilled in her purpose in life.” Yolanda Wang agrees: “For a man in China, at the age of 30 you’re meant to have a career, a car, a job. For a woman, the main responsibility is to find someone, to get married. And the pressure on her [to do that] starts at the age of 22 or 23.”
Recently, the journalist (and friend of Lean In Beijing) Roseann Lake co-organised the Leftover Monologues – women’s monologues from all over the world, prompted by a combination of the Chinese women’s movement, Leta Hong Fincher’s work on gender inequality and activist Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. It was the first time many of the Chinese contributors had presented their own stories. “It’s really hard for Chinese people to speak out. They’ll be judged by society as a bad girl, judged by family and friends,” says Maggie Zhang. The Lean In movement in China is radical in itself, for its fostering of open dialogue. The conversation goes far beyond tips on how to negotiate for higher salaries, be less self-critical, manage career progression, handle confrontation or consider a company job versus entrepreneurship - although Lean In Beijing members have discussed all these and more. “The idea is not necessarily limited to work or career, or even family,” says Lui, “it’s more about a close knit, confidential community of women who listen to you, empathise with you and help you.” “Women at big companies are afraid to speak out at meetings,” says Wang, adding, “In the US women sit and talk about their [professional and life] dreams. In China people ask you, ‘Do you have a boyfriend? What does he do?’ Nobody thinks a woman has a dream.” “We asked women how they saw their purpose in life,” says Ye, “and lots of women told us that that was the first time they’d ever asked that question of themselves.”
“Our parents tell us not to get a boyfriend when we’re at college, so we can concentrate completely on our studies,” says Maggie Zhang, “but then, when we turn 25, they pressure us to get a husband.” “I was told, ‘You should never try to be too smart or you won’t find a boyfriend’ by my mother’s friend,” says Lui, “and I was pressured to marry from the age of 26. The family is still considered the centre of everything. I’ve heard, ‘You can’t get a PhD because no-one wants to marry a PhD.’”
"The other side of the ‘leftover women' story is that we’re moving forward as never before,” says Ye. “Women don’t need a partner to sustain their lifestyles. It’s inevitable that women in China will have more freedom and that this will force change. The post-90s generation is already changing things, they’re really independent. They see that it’s important to have your own thoughts.” Lui chips in, “On one hand China has been one country that’s done the best in equalising everyone to some extent. People’s lives are getting better. But there are problems with the way it’s being done and the consequences. The Chinese haven’t got used to money yet. They want to show off, to show people what they've got. CEOs of companies are in their 20s and 30s. They start a company, they make money. The Chinese mentality-change is one of the fastest in the world, because of the way modern China has started itself up.” “The economy is changing very fast. But society changes slowly,” says Wang. Ye says, “My parents went through the hunger, when they didn’t have enough to eat. That’s why what they want for me is the best: comfort, a husband. When my generation has its kids, it’ll be different.”
While women are regarded as valuable only within the domestic sphere, where their labour can be exploited for free, domestic duties are regarded as demeaning for men to do. “If a man is a stay at home dad, people think he doesn’t have what it takes to go out into the world and support the family. It’s about saving face,” says Zhang. “In Chinese TV shows the man is always rich, tall, successful and the woman is obedient and subservient.”
“There are a lot of social barriers,” Ye agrees when I balk at the idea of individual women changing themselves in order to somehow evade, circumvent, win out against or contend with endemically antiwomen structures, judgements, customs, stereotypes and activities. “We can’t change the outside of society very fast but within our generation and the next we can change the policy-makers of the future. There’s only so much one person can do, but if everyone plays their part you can change a lot.” However, the barriers to equality and liberation are high. “You are discriminated against as a single woman,” says Ye. “Single women are barred from adoption. Sometimes a woman will choose her family over her career. Or she’ll choose her career. But women aren’t allowed to be both.” Yolanda Wang’s company asked one of her female colleagues to sign a piece of paper promising that she wouldn’t get pregnant for two years. “We never hear about men’s work-life balance, only women’s. And you’re judged badly whatever you choose,” she says. Maggie Zhang adds, “We have to educate not only women but also men, who are under huge pressure to be successful.”
Alicia Lui believes that Sheryl Sandberg’s inspiring talk and book have “raised issues which enable us to have more open conversations about [sexism]. Lean In was a catalyst. It said to women, if you really feel you have a need for something you have to raise your hand and ask for it.”
Ye believes the movement is a chance for women to look at their lives afresh: “Before you change anyone’s life you have to change the way they see themselves. We have high rates of employment for women here, but sometimes women are happy with less demanding hours and less pay, because it means they still have time to do all their family duties. I believed all that too – until I was brave enough to say that that was not what I want. Once people see alternatives then they can begin to lean in and change their lives. We want to help women pursue their own definition of success, help them when they’re young and share stories of other women’s lives so they see themselves in these women.”
Lean In Beijing derives its momentum and power from its focus on co-operation between women. “Why do women judge each other?” says Allison Ye. “We don’t have that tradition of women helping women.” “We support each other to take the next step,” says Alicia Lui, “but starting something requires the other side to response. I argued with my mum [who put pressure on me to marry] and now she’s coming to understand my thinking. Each of us has a personal stake in Lean In Beijing because these issues affect us personally.”
Yolanda Wang says, “At my first Lean In Beijing meeting I realised I’m not on my own, I’m not crazy. Women are so honest, so encouraging, they push you to change things. For women it’s very hard to be their real self. Who they are now is who their family wants them to be, who society wants them to be. The cliché was that the only thing between girls was jealousy. But that’s not true. It’s so good to see girls who say to each other, ‘I like you because you’re awesome.’” For a full list of my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here.