In the Western world, the invisible but insidious barriers that can hold women back from leadership, team building activities, and top negotiating positions—including subtle discrimination against them and preferential treatment of men—are often described as a “glass ceiling.” Meanwhile, some aspiring businesswomen in China complain that they can’t even get close to the glass ceiling because their feet remain firmly rooted on a “sticky floor.”
In a recent New York Times article, Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Michael Forsythe write that Chinese women have been losing rather than gaining ground in the workforce relative to men. Although women comprise 44.7% of China’s workers, only 25.1% of them have positions of responsibility, according to the 2010 Chinese census.
Fewer than 1 in 10 board members of China’s top 300 companies are women, Tatlow and Forsythe have found. Women are particularly under-represented in state-owned companies. By comparison, in the United States, women comprise 19.2% of the boards of the S&P 500, and fill about 18% of board seats in Europe’s 610 largest companies.
“There is a glass ceiling here too, but most women never even get off the sticky floor,” Chinese feminist Feng Yuan told the Times. In the Chinese business world, team building often excludes women.
Negotiation topics in business: An overt backlash
Even as China’s economic boom has opened doors for women, it has “also fostered a resurgence of long-repressed traditional values,” according to the Times. Women reportedly are facing increasing cultural and societal pressures to marry young and stay home to take care of their families.
The Communist Party’s official women’s organization, the All-China Women’s Federation, focuses more on promoting traditional values and carrying out the nation’s family planning policy than on advocating for Chinese women in the labor market.
Turning to a negotiation example, women in the West can face a social backlash for asking for more for themselves in salary negotiations, Professors Hannah Riley Bowles, Linda Babcock, and Lei Lai found in their negotiation research. Women in China appear to be far less likely to have the opportunity to negotiate for a job in the first place. In part because Chinese labor laws banning gender discrimination are vague and almost impossible to enforce, it is common for job advertisements to ask specifically for male applicants and even to overtly discourage women from applying.
Team building: A role for Chinese women?
The situation of Chinese businesswomen attests to the importance of negotiation in business. Negotiators have a tendency to overlook the interests of parties who are not present at the table. When large sectors of society are excluded from the negotiating table, the results can have potentially devastating consequences for them. At the same time, overlooking the value that women could bring to team building and business negotiations is short sighted and counterproductive. To take one negotiation example, women have been found to make less risky decisions than men under pressure and stress.
The low representation of women in upper management in China also raises questions for Western negotiators who are trying to decide how to overcome cultural differences in business. Western organizations might try to lead by example by ensuring their international negotiating teams are well represented by women. They might also look for ways to mentor Chinese women and bring their valuable skills to their own negotiating teams.