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Gender poses no barrier
( 2003-08-25 09:07) (China Daily)

More than 1,000 delegates from across the nation attended the opening of the Chinese Women's Ninth National Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. [Xinhua]
Yan Ao'shuang has a name that is full of ambition since "ao" in Chinese means boldness.

Yan said her father had wished she were a boy before she was born. But when he found he had a baby girl, he gave her an adamant name with the wish that she could exceed the male gender some day.

And Yan did not make him disappointed.

She is now deputy general director of the Beijing Academy of Science and Technology and the only woman among the decision-makers at the academy - one general director plus six deputies.

At 40, Yan is also the youngest among the academy's top managers.

Her current task is to direct a 30-million-yuan (US$3.64 million) project to build a new high-tech park in Beijing. "I don't feel much about my gender difference when I am at work," Yan said. "I think women can do as well as men in all levels of work including the top executive levels."

'Pyramid' participation

Yan's success ought not be a big surprise nowadays in China. The famous saying of late Chairman Mao Zedong: "Women hold up half the sky" is on everyone's lips and women have worked in various fields and levels of society over the past several decades.

However, women's political participation - the participation of women in decision-making and managerial roles over the nation and social affairs - could be described today as a pyramid, said Wu Xiuping, 59, who is the vice-chairwoman of the Beijing Women's Federation.

"The higher the position, the fewer the women," said Wu.

She said promoting women's political participation has remained one of the hardest tasks for all level's of women's federations around the country because "the work sometimes challenges the traditional bias of the whole society."

Vice-Premier Wu Yi talks with a pork stand owner during her recent inpecton tour in Beijing to check food safty standards. [China Daily]

The natural images of women are almost fixed in people's mind like "mothers who feed babies" and "wives who cook with aprons."

And women are often portrayed as "gossips, being emotional and being too concerned about tiny things."

"With so many prejudiced impressions, it is hard for women to win trust from their managers," Yan said.

"Only after women are able to prove themselves as good as men, sometimes more so, can they win the trust.

"But by then, the chance for promotion may have already slipped away.

"In contrast, men are usually regarded as natural leaders with potential."

Beijing arguably has a better and more accommodating environment, said Wu.

People still have fond memories of the elections for vice-mayors in Beijing during the annual local people's congress in early 1988, during which the Beijing People's Congress deputies voted both women candidates into the top municipal executive positions after they had heard all of the 10 candidates' ideas for the development of the city.

For the first time in history, Beijing had two women vice-mayors out of seven.

Today, they have gone on to become top stateswomen in China.

Wu Yi is now vice-premier and He Luli is vice-chairperson of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislature.

But even today, Beijing only has one woman in the top echelon of municipal government.

Appointment system

China started its government reforms in the late 1990s to reduce redundancy, improve efficiency and services and prevent corruption.

As a result, a new system of appointments through open and fair competition began to evolve in the nation's capital in 1995, the year when the Fourth World Conference on Women was held.

The vacant leadership positions in the local government agencies were made public and any qualified candidates were encouraged to apply. All had to go through written tests and interviews to compete for the positions.

The person with best score was appointed to the position after their previous performance was appraised and the opinions of their colleagues and superiors heard. The method is still used today.

In the deputy director general exams in Beijing in 2001, Yan stood out.

Among the more than 10 people who competed to become the deputy director general of the Beijing Academy of Science and Technology, she topped both the written test and interview.

Yan's success did not surprise many since she already had a top education background. She got her bachelor degree from the Physics Department of Peking University in 1985 and finished her master's degree programme at Beijing Normal University in 1988.

In 1995, she got a PhD degree after three years' study at the University of Manchester in Britain. She had been doing research work since 1995 at the academy.

To be an eminent scientist was always her dream. So she hesitated when the academy asked her to apply for the higher position.

"I didn't know whether giving up my research work was a wise idea because administration work was a brand-new challenge for me," Yan said.

Having worked as deputy director general for two years, she has won unanimous backing from her colleagues for being "efficient, fair, strict and full of affinity."

In Yan's initial intake there were 97 woman candidates, accounting for 18.7 per cent of all applicants. Among the 171 who passed the written test, 39 were women. Of the 30 who finally won appointments, nine were women.

Yan recalled that some male candidates had doubted her move.

"They said I looked very different from what they had always pictured a woman leader to be, mannish and tough," she says.

"The bias and traditional thoughts about women becoming leaders cannot be changed by a single competition. But as more and more women get chances to move up through the ranks through this relatively fair process, more people will see our potential."

Open selection

Li Yunli, 53, clearly remembers the first open selection exam in Beijing in 1995. She was the only woman to pass the exam in which 173 candidates competed for five deputy general positions.

Sixty-six candidates competed to become the deputy general director of the Beijing Family Planning Commission and Li won.

Unlike Yan, Li had abundant governmental administration experience, since she had worked in the government office of the Chaoyang District for about 20 years and had worked as chairperson of the Women's Federation of the Chaoyang District for three years.

Li did not pin much hope on the exam, however, and the only motivation for her to take part was to test her knowledge and ability, she says.

Her overall score ranked second among all the candidates and she is still in the job, as the only woman among the four deputy general directors and the single director general at the commission.

According to Wu Xiuping, a clear target for women's participation in government and political affairs has been set in the Programme for the Development of Chinese Women (1995-2000).

It states there shall be at least one woman in every top Party, government and legislative body at a provincial level. And for the leading bodies at the prefectural and city or township levels, preferably two.

"The target has basically been achieved in Beijing," said Wu. "Our next five-year target is to keep improving the proportion of women leaders at all levels.

"Some people criticize us as extreme feminists, we aren't. We are just asking for equal opportunities that we deserve to have."

Yan said although some women have excellent ability, they are unwilling to take part in the selection process, which is part of the reason why women are under-represented at all levels of government.

"Women are not as utilitarian compared with men," Yan said. "Women always focus on how to do the work the best without considering what benefits they can get if the job is accomplished."

Yan also said some factors that people thought were shortcomings of women, in terms of being a leader, could actually be seen as advantageous.

"Lacking utilitarianism could make us easily unite other decision-makers and make us excellent consensus builders," she said.

"Being 'emotional' could be seen as being full of affinity and humanity. Being 'careful' and sometimes 'meticulous' avoids big mistakes in the decision-making process."

Both Yan and Li said "family and child" would not be a burden for a woman if her daily life was well organized. They also admitted that they were both lucky that their husbands supported their work.

Li said, unlike many husbands who would feel inferior when their wives were in higher positions, her husband - a blue-collar worker - never complained and did more of the housework than her.

But the costs of a successful career are sometimes unavoidable, Yan said. She had to leave her 3-year-old daughter in Beijing to study in Britain and when she returned, her daughter hardly knew her.

Now still busy with work, Yan still has little time to spend with her 14-year-old girl.

"As a mum, I'm not so competent," she said with regret. "But I believe when she grows up, she will understand."

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