CHINESE women have taken great strides, but many young women still find themselves caught in a dilemma. Growing up in an era of rapid economic and social development, they are more aware of gender issues than their mothers, so they feel more pressured in the traditional patriarchal society.
As an only child, they face high academic and career expectations. Many parents expect them to compete with men. But as they get older and excel in their careers, they are still expected to fulfill family duties to get married, bear a child and oversee a household.
"My parents had very high expectations of me when I was little. They said I should compete with boys. Now they always say nobody is going to marry me because I'm too competitive," says 31-year-old Zhu Xiaoling, who was recently promoted in a local trading company. "That is very confusing and contradicts what they taught me."
Her parents were not happy about her promotion. In fact, she felt denigrated. They suggested the biggest reason for promotion was the fact she is unmarried, convincing her boss that she would spend more time at work than her peers, who are mostly switching their focus to family.
"It was heartbreaking to hear this from my parents," Zhu says. "I understand their concerns, but they undervalue me and consider my work capability to be zero. That's not comforting when I face other work obstacles."
Problems include the glass ceiling.
The ongoing National People's Congress of around 3,000 representatives has 699 women deputies, up by 2.07 percent from last year to 23.4 percent. It's a big increase from the 12 percent in the first congress nearly 60 years ago, but women's representation is still less than a quarter. That's just slightly above what was stipulated in 2007: women deputies must account for no less than 22 percent of the total.
Zhen Yan, vice chairwoman of the All-China Women's Federation, recently pointed out that many senior women executives and engineers have been forced out of work before age 55, despite the stipulation that they should be able to choose whether to continue work or to retire before 60.
She cited data from Third Survey on the Status of Chinese Women, released in late 2010, which reported the average retirement age for senior women professionals to be 52.5 years.
The same survey reported the average income of working women is only 67.3 percent that of males in cities and 56 percent in rural areas.
Senior women executives are only around half the number of senior men in government departments, institutes and state-owned enterprises, according to the same survey. Twenty percent of these bodies recruit only men or give men priority in recruitment, while men also get promoted faster in 30 percent of these employers.
And it starts at entry-level jobs. Shanghai University senior Linda Liu is going through the recruiting season. A relative helped her interview at a state bank, but warned her the bank prefers men because they are considered more career-focused. Liu didn't get the job and wasn't told why.
Shanghai Normal University master's degree candidate Rachel Xiao is seeking a lecturer's job, but is often told that various institutes in the university only want male lecturers.
The situation is only slightly easier in the private sector, where performance is often the key factor in promotion. But there are practical reasons that make it harder for women.
"It is harder in Chinese society because business is done through relations. Men bond with each other and it isn't very easy for a woman to break through these bonds. When they go to karaoke together, what can you do?" says Lina Wong, managing director at Colliers International's East and Southwest China and China Investment Services.
"That said, you have to find other ways to bond rather than just giving up or feeling the situation is unfair."
At the same time, the disparaging phrase and mentality sheng nu, literally "leftover women," hangs over many career women, warning that their market value is declining ever faster after what is considered the prime time to marry and bear a child.
The age was once 30 but now it is 27. Still, many women, and especially their parents, really start to panic as they turn 25.
"Women PhDs" is another disparaging expression like "leftover women," because when a woman gets a PhD, she is often well past the so-called prime age and is no longer desirable."Freeze your eggs!" suggests Huoy-Ming Yeh, managing director of SVB Capital China, who has withstood the same pressure to marry. "I would have frozen my eggs if the technology had been mature in my time."
Yeh went to the United States when she was 15. After graduating from Wellesley College, she earned a master's degree in electrical engineering and worked as an engineer credited with three patents before getting an MBA from MIT. She didn't think much about marriage until she was already in her early 30s.
She got married at 39, gave birth to her daughter at 42 and moved to Shanghai in 2008.
"Freeze your eggs. That's what I will tell my daughter if she decides to marry late," Yeh says. "Then you are not tied to the biological clock. You still need to think about how old you are when you raise a child. But ultimately, you get at least a 20-year window to do what you want for life."
Shanghai's - and China's - first egg bank is under construction, which began in late 2010, but it is not yet open to the public. Zhao Xiaoming from the egg bank at Renji Hospital says, "We have the technology, but we are waiting for the go-ahead from the National Ministry of Health."
Yeh is also chairperson of Women in Leadership China, a platform for senior women leaders in venture capital and private equity where they connect and help promote the next generation of women leaders in China.
For the next generation of Chinese women, it doesn't get easier after getting married. The onerous label "leftover women" is lifted, but it's replaced by the requirement of caring for a child, husband, parents and household - all the while contributing to household income.
The "Blue Book on Women's Life," published by Social Sciences Academic Press, reports that urban women contributed 35.8 percent of household income in 2010. With the high cost of living and rearing a child, most women must work after they marry.
"My salary is almost the same as my husband's, but my in-laws still expect me to spend more time at home. My parents always call me when they need something because they think my little brother should be busy with work. I am also busy," says Zhang Qi, communications manager at Shenliang Expositions Co. After she gave birth two years ago, her parents urged her to get a job with regular hours.
"Of course I want to look after my daughter and my parents. It's in my nature. But I don't like being told you're a woman, so don't be so ambitious outside, and take more responsibility at home."
Successful women speak
Shanghai Daily talks to four Chinese women business leaders who share their experience and offer advice to young Chinese women who want to have it both ways - to have it all.
Founding partner Keytone Ventures
Observations: "People think it should be the woman to take care of the child and parents. That is very difficult when you are an executive and need to travel a lot. That's a fact of life. Women do more."
Suggestions: "I only reconciled with the concept of 'leftover women' two years ago. Many of my young friends are in their 30s, unmarried and don't want to settle for less. I acted like a mother, urging them to find a boyfriend and get married, but then I realized it should be their minds, not mine. And they are actually happy this way. So it is important to find out what really makes you happy."
Managing director, SVB Capital China
Observations: "I notice there are actually more senior-level women in China doing what I do than in the US."
Suggestions: "Freeze your eggs!"
"Be confident. I read that a woman's beauty is truly reflected in her confidence and I really believe in that. Chinese culture teaches us to be modest, and confidence is not the same as arrogance. Give yourself more credit."
General manager and chief financial officer, China, EF Education First
Observations: "EF is in the business of training for professionals. In my eight years here, I have seen more women training at the professional level than men. They are as capable, enthusiastic and ambitious as men."
Suggestions: "At every stage, I've been incredibly lucky to have great mentors. So I suggest women find these people to connect with. Other people are incredibly helpful.
Asking is also very important. Every time I asked for something, I have received it, whether a new challenge or a new opportunity. A lot of people, particularly women, are afraid to ask for things. You must ask, even though it can be very scary."
Managing director, Colliers International's East and Southwest China and China Investment Services
Observations: "I can see many young Chinese women get pressure to marry, especially from parents. And women themselves get very worried, especially after age 30 and the clock starts ticking. Unfortunately, a lot of Chinese men like younger girls, but you don't want that kind of men anyway if they are only marrying you for your youth, because you will get old."
Suggestions: "As a woman, we should recognize that women are disadvantaged, get over it and overcome it. Then we also recognize our strength and appreciate it."