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Legal Talent & Inclusion

How women’s workplace perspectives differ in China and the West

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

A study of women legal professionals in China reveals perspectives that differ from that of their colleagues in the West, including around workplace biases

Over the last 30 years, the participation of women in the workforce in China has drastically declined to 60.5% in 2019, compared to 73.2% in 1990, according to the research firm Catalyst. This was in part the result of economic reforms that created setbacks for women, including a widening gender wage gap, a lack of childcare and eldercare options, and a resurgence of traditional stereotypes about women’s work.

Conversely, a new study of nearly 450 Millennial women in China who are working as lawyers and paralegals reveals that women tend not to regard combating the bias as their foremost concern. This study, conducted by Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Associate Dean of International Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and her student Ziguo Yang. Survey respondents included a majority working as junior associates at domestic and top-performing Chinese law firms, with half of the women earning an LLM or JD outside of China.

The Penn Law study showed there is agreement that the biggest headwind professional women in China face in advancing their careers is society’s expectations of having a child.

Further, 93% percent of women surveyed who work within China’s legal industry indicated they were not working mothers, and this likely was the biggest reason for the varying opinions on why gender bias was not seen as a significant issue, even as they acknowledge that careers for working mothers are negatively impacted by childbirth. Indeed, with so many women professionals not being working mothers, it tends to obscure their perception on just how difficult that role can be, especially given China’s cultural expectations of women to stop working in order to care for their families.

Differing viewpoints in legal

Diving deeper into the details of the Penn Law study revealed large variations in the perspectives of women lawyers in China, especially in the context of such perceptions in the West.

Gender bias not a big concern — While there is a tendency to acknowledge that workplace gender bias exists, the majority of women lawyers in China do not pay extra attention to this issue. Simply put, workplace gender bias is not regarded as their biggest challenge.

“I believe the major conflict in workplace, however, lies in the stark reality that the bosses want to achieve higher performance with fewer lawyers,” said one survey respondent. “The main pressure comes from the intensity of work, instead of gender inequality. I hope females in China can grasp the nature of the conflict, and avoid any misleading information based on superficial conflicts between genders.”

At same time, another research participant seemed to frame gender bias as a generational, societal challenge. Even women lawyers define men as “rational” and women as “emotional” in the study.

“People of the last generation still hold gender stereotypes, and those people are controlling young lawyers’ promotion,” noted another respondent.

Gender neutral perspectives on leadership — More than three-quarters of women in the legal industry indicated they have no preference on whether they work for a man or woman. For those citing a preference, almost 17% of respondents reported they are more willing to work with male leaders than female leaders, while around 8% preferred female leaders.

Interestingly, of those citing a preference, gender stereotypes seem to play a big role. For the women who preferred working for a male, descriptions of male leaders were “not that sensitive and emotional,” “more rational,” and “only cares about the results of the assignments.” On the flip side, women who preferred female leaders indicated they appreciated women’s friendliness, consideration, and common understanding of “my” situation without the additional worry of sexual harassment.

Most report good career satisfaction — Many women professionals in China indicated an overall positive view in career satisfaction when looking at the job, compensation, and their ability to balance career and personal commitments outside of work. This perspective is supported by positive views of male leadership. At the individual level, the women participants tend to agree or strongly agree that working with their male colleagues is enjoyable, and that their male colleague are willing to put them on center stage.

However, where divergent views existed, it appeared to be rooted in their personal workplace experience. The lack of women in leadership seemed to play a role in the junior women’s perception of their own hope for advancement. One female respondent indicated that there are two few female managing partners at her firm and this underscored the negative bias in how women were evaluated for their performance.

Said another respondent: “Female lawyers have less access to resources and sponsorship.”

One notable commonality that junior women in the U.S. and China appear to share is the belief in workplace meritocracy — that career advancement within an organization is mostly performance-based without the belief that gender bias has a tangible impact in promotion. For the women in the legal profession in China, this belief shows up in their tendency to view their male colleagues as good co-workers.

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