What's it really like to be a smart, ambitious young woman in China? Lara Izzard-Hobbs, an intern at a Chinese law firm as part of the British Council's Generation UK-China programme, answers.
My first visit to China was during my UK-based undergraduate degree in Russian and politics. I completed summer courses in intensive Mandarin and Chinese history at Zhejiang University in the beautiful city of Hangzhou in eastern China, while taking part in the Study China Programme and the British Council’s Generation UK-China campaign. I then wrote a 4,000-word essay on the internet and political engagement in China.
During my current visit, my perspective has been somewhat different. I'm back as a graduate and Generation UK and CRCC intern at the Chinese multinational law firm Zhonglun W&D. This time, I am less interested in political and historical theories and more interested in practicalities regarding what it is like to live and work in China in 2016. What would my life be like if I had been born an ambitious girl in Beijing rather than London?
One evening, I attended a business seminar for Beijing interns, where Elizabeth Oppong, a US entrepreneur and previous CRCC intern, presented. Her company, WeLink, connects women in business around the world, and was inspired by the quality of driven female self-starters she encountered in China. She described some of the inspirational women she had brought together, many of whom were drawing on rapidly developing opportunities in the technology sector. She also emphasised that, while in China, we should be ready to encounter new ideas, people and opportunities when we might least expect them. I knew this was great advice, thanks to the time I'd spent immersing myself in new experiences and unfamiliar customs in Russia. However, despite thinking I was open to new ideas and knew about international women’s issues, I still failed to fully grasp how inspirational Chinese women are until I saw them in action myself.
Women have long been recognised as a valuable resource in the workforce in China; Mao Zedong famously said that women 'hold up half the sky'. This belief in women is reflected in their business success. Chinese women make up half the world’s self-made female billionaires. Women hold 51 per cent of senior management positions in China, more than double that of either North America or the European Union. The e-commerce company Ceetop Inc, and the mobile phone and calling card distributor China Teletech Holding Inc in Shenzhen make up half of the four companies in the world with all-female boards. China’s success has been at least in part due to its understanding of David Rothkopf’s message in an article for Foreign Policy magazine. He wrote that 'no society can thrive if it fails to tap the intellectual, economic, creative, and spiritual resources of its entire population'. My experience of working in China reflects this. Women make up roughly 40 per cent of the lawyers at Zhonglun W&D. They dominate the cohort of younger lawyers and the administrative team.
The first thing that surprised me about life as a working woman in China centred on clothes. I arrived at the office in a typical corporate trouser suit and low heels, attempting that delicate balance between comfort and professional polish. In London, women's dress at work is a persistent topic of discussion. The push for women’s workwear to be closer to men's more practical suits runs up against the continuing fact that women are more highly valued in a competitive environment if they are considered good-looking. In China, however, I discovered that my new colleagues were sporting a wide range of far more casual, quirky outfits. They wore bright colours and bold patterns, and their clothes prioritised comfort and individual expression. I therefore began working life in China surrounded by intelligent and friendly women who - unlike me, but like their male colleagues - did not seem to think that their adherence to ‘business fashion’ would dictate how seriously they were taken.
I have greatly enjoyed the freedom to wear what I want at work without considering my gender, and I will regret leaving it behind on returning to the UK. More crucially though, I think it contributes to Chinese female entrepreneurs’ independence of ideas. I have met many women here who are passionate about unusual hobbies; and it's common for Chinese young professionals to move regularly between professional sectors that require different skills and bring distinct challenges. For example, one colleague of mine worked in nursery teaching and finance within the last year, before joining the law firm.
This experience of women in China was confirmed during long and delicious communal lunches, an important part of the bonding process with your colleagues in China. Discussion with my largely female companions tends to be about ambitions to travel extensively and to give something back to the world. These are individuals with a drive to go out and succeed. I failed to expect I would be so tested in my appetite for new challenges. Perhaps I am more guilty than I thought of the misconception that Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism campaign highlighted, 'that feminism is a white, Western movement that needs to be exported to other countries, so women there can be told they are oppressed, and how to live their lives'. As Bates says, '[w]e have so much to learn from women within their own communities who are leading change'. These women include Hong Kong sociology graduate Wang Xiaoshuang, who started Greenxxoo in China two years ago. Greenxxoo is a company that uses social media to inform young people on sensitive topics, such as sexuality and relationships. Initiatives such as this help other young women become more confident in turn.
In common with other countries, China has many obstacles left to tackle before its workplaces are equally welcoming to women and men. However, I have been very excited to witness Chinese women's highly developed entrepreneurial spirit. China is a hugely inspirational place in which to undertake an internship, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to test themselves professionally, linguistically, and culturally.
Find out more about opportunities on the Generation UK-China programme. The next deadline for a series of scholarships is 15 April 2016.