The United States, China, and the STEM Gender Gap

by | February 25, 2015 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

At around the same time at which Google recently released its widely-panned diversity figures, the Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba ramped up preparations for its highly anticipated IPO, and in doing so, provided investors details into the inner workings of the company. Alibaba revealed that a surprising 9 out of its 27 partners are female. This number is higher than even Facebook and Yahoo who employ perhaps the two of the most famous female C-Suite executives in the tech industry: Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer. It is far higher than Google, whose 36 executives include only 3 women, and whose general leadership ranks are only 21% female.

Alibaba’s list of female partners includes the company’s chief financial officer, its chief customer officer, and its COO of the logistics business. Alibaba is unique among tech companies in that the company included women from its inception at founder Jack Ma’s Hangzhou apartment 15 years ago. Consequently, Caroline Simard, a research director at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, states that “From very early on, the founder has established a diverse team and that became part of the DNA of the organization.” In essence, because women helped create Alibaba’s corporate culture from the start, corporate culture has not been as great a barrier to gender inclusion at Alibaba as it has been in many other tech firms.

Some have looked at the numbers from Alibaba and other recent Chinese success stories and proclaimed that modern Chinese culture is inherently more open to female achievement in the workplace, invoking Mao Zedong’s famous maxim, “Women hold up half the sky.” It is easy to jump to this conclusion when presented with the success of women like Alibaba CFO Maggie Wu and Ctrip COO Jane Jie Sun.  However, global statistics seem to paint a slightly different picture.  An article by the Harvard Business Review states that 30% of Chinese women in STEM careers are likely to leave their positions within one year despite 90% of them feeling “driven by meaning and purpose” by their work. These numbers are only marginally better than those for the US, where 32% of women are reportedly likely to leave their positions within one year despite 80% of them feeling “driven by meaning and purpose.” Furthermore, the Chinese STEM community displays many of the same markers of gender discrimination as the US STEM community, at nearly identical rates. Between 21% and 26% of Chinese women report experiencing workplace cultures often associated with gender discrimination compared with a range of 20% to 31% of American women. Furthermore, perceived bias at Chinese STEM companies is actually worse at Chinese companies than at American companies. Eighty-three percent of women in Chinese companies report that their coworkers believe men have a genetic advantage in math and science, compared to 50% of women in American companies. Seventy percent of women in Chinese companies report double standards in training opportunities for female employees, compared to 54% for American companies. The only bias-related area in which Chinese firms perform better is performance evaluations, where 68% of Chinese women perceive bias compared to 72% of American women.

Obviously, both the United States and China are a long way away from true gender equality. Thus, perhaps it is not entirely accurate to conclude that Chinese culture is inherently more open to female achievement. The more accurate conclusion to draw, especially after seeing the relative success of Alibaba on this topic, maybe that the more women become involved in the development of a company from inception, the better the opportunities for women will be at that same company. From this perspective, we may perceive a glimmer of hope. In 2011, China boasted over 29 million female entrepreneurs, and recent studies have shown that throughout the world, women-led tech start-ups “achieve 35 percent higher return on investment, and, when venture-backed, bring in 12 percent higher revenue than male-owned tech companies.” Each of these female founders is uniquely positioned to mold their corporate culture in a way that eliminates many of the typical barriers facing women in the workplace and to build a board of directors even more diverse than Alibaba’s. Today, only 3 percent of tech companies are founded by women.  Supporting women in entrepreneurship and in their involvement in nascent tech companies may be an important factor in changing the culture of the global STEM community.