Think Chinese women are demure lotus blossoms? Well, you can toss that stereotype on the compost heap. Among the professional class in China, at least, women are enjoying extraordinary success and are often surpassing their Western sisters. Several recent articles have explored this phenomenon.
Let's start with The Asian Lawyer (I'll be looking at other articles in upcoming posts), which reports that women in Hong Kong represent 46 percent of the 10,000 lawyers and make up 24 percent of the partners . The United States, where women constitute fewer than a third of all lawyers and only 19 percent of law firm partners, pales in comparison.
At some of the most prestigious Western firms in that part of the world, women rule:
- Chun Wei, head of Sullivan & Cromwell's Hong Kong and Beijing offices
- Jeanette Chan (right), head of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison's China practice
- Teresa Ko (middle), head of the China practice for Freshfields
- Elaine Lo, head of Mayer Brown JSM's Hong Kong office
- Poh Lee Tan, head of Baker & McKenzie's Hong Kong office
- Akiko Mikumo, managing parter of Weil, Gotshal & Manges's Hong Kong office
And that list doesn't even include top female partners like Celia Lam of Simpson Thacher & Barltett or Benita Yu (left) of Slaughter and May, and others.
How did a patriarchial society produce this kind of success story for women in the legal profession? Theories abound. One is that many Chinese clients are women, as a result of China's one-child policy. Reports The Asian Lawyer:
Paul Weiss's Chan sees the number of woman executives as a legacy of the Communist government's one-child policy. Ambitious parents who might have favored sons instead pushed daughters to succeed. As a result, she believes that there is very little workplace discrimination, and women hold senior positions at many large Chinese companies.
But here's a theory that is bound to upset some people:
Women in Hong Kong are also rising on the backs of other women—the armies of inexpensive domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia who do the cooking, cleaning, dog-walking, and child-minding for a large swath of Hong Kong's professional classes. If the lack of affordable and reliable child care is the most frequently cited obstacle to professional women's progress in the West, that obstacle simply doesn't exist in Hong Kong.
Okay, I can hear the disapproving chorus already. American liberals are probably saying that Chinese women are exploiting the underclass, while traditionalists are undoubtedly horrified that these women are putting ambition ahead of motherhood.
I'm not going to get into those debates. What stands out to me is that women in China are much more open about their ambitions. Whether you approve or not, there's an unapologetic honesty about the necessity of delegating child care to others to get to the top:
"I think in Western jurisdictions, there might be a stigma attached to getting house help," says Chan. "Lawyers in the West may think that, since they weren't brought up by nannies, they should also weigh up to that responsibility. But it's different over here. People here don't think it's a big deal because most have been brought up by nannies themselves."
Skadden capital markets partner Julie Gao tells The Asian Lawyer: "[The] majority of my time goes to work, but I love what I'm doing, and I cannot imagine being a stay-home mom and not working." She adds: "No one at home is complaining, and until someone does, my life is not going to change."
Tiger lawyers. Tiger moms. Whatever. There's no pretense of work/life balance—if that term exists at all there. If it works, who's to argue?
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