Women in Business

European companies in China commit to fostering progress

Alongside their state-of-the-art products and services, European companies also bring their company cultures to China when setting up operations in the country. As part of their company group’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion (D&I) at the workplace, many European businesses have already set up D&I teams, created various initiatives and implemented relevant in-house policies both in their global operations and on local levels. The European Chamber recently conducted a survey and a set of interviews with Advisory Council members to provide an overview of the progress some of the largest European companies operating in China have made in promoting gender diversity in leadership roles as well as in their general workforce. This article outlines some of the main findings.

Increasing the share of women in business is an important facet of diversity and inclusion effort, and one where European companies are especially well-placed to foster progress in China.

At the most fundamental level, European companies report that they put a special emphasis on communication as part of their promotion of gender diversity in the workplace. The language they use reflects their commitment to inclusion. For example, a European Chamber member reported that in their job postings for areas where men are overrepresented, they use a tone and vocabulary that may better resonate with female applicants. Furthermore, some members have run in-house as well as external communication campaigns to raise awareness about factors, like unconscious bias, that can impede efforts at increasing the share of women in the workforce if left untackled.

At a more tangible level, businesses set targets for increasing female representation. During an interview conducted for the survey, a member company pointed out that specific targets are helpful because they can give a clear indication of how fruitful efforts at diversifying the workforce have been, as well as on which areas are more challenging. The targets also clearly indicate companies’ intentions towards increasing the role women play in business.

To ensure that their targets can be reached, several member companies have quotas in place throughout their hiring process. One company said that it relies on a set replacement rate to calculate how many women should join their staff once a female employee departs. Another company reported having a minimum quota for the percentage of women in leadership positions across all company functions.

Another key action taken by companies against gender imbalance is putting policies in place to ensure equal pay. One member reported that its annual salary review includes several dimensions for checking if there is a salary gap between genders. The company also has a special budget for eliminating salary gaps if any are identified.   

According to members, increasing female representation remains a challenge in some sectors. This is in line with the global picture. A survey by the World Economic Forum (WEF) shows that the share of women in the workforce varies greatly across business sectors.[1] According to the survey, women’s participation in job families such as installation and maintenance, construction and extraction, architecture and engineering, and manufacturing and production are relatively low. Some European Chamber members with business activities in those areas described similar trends, while pointing out that other areas—including financial services and administration—are often dominated by women. The WEF survey also attests to this latter observation.

Some member companies have partnered with educational institutions to attract more females to career paths where they are currently underrepresented. Their initiatives for young female talent include events as well as courses for students from secondary-school level up. One common goal cited is empowering girls by creating awareness of gender stereotyping. The idea behind such programmes is that young women will be more confident in the face of discouragement if they can identify that it is stemming from gender bias. Another company mentioned making efforts to dispel outdated perceptions about certain fields: for example, while manufacturing is frequently believed to be labour-intensive, due to technical advances and automatisation in recent decades, these jobs have largely shifted to being focus-intensive, requiring a different set of skills. 

Increasing the number of female business leaders can be challenging when women are underrepresented along the talent pipeline. One member reported trying to mitigate this by identifying the problems their female employees encounter in their career paths. Through targeted internal workshops that provide a platform for women to share their experiences and exchange their views, female members of staff can help their company to find ways in which the difficulties they face can be addressed. For example, as women are generally considered to be the primary caretakers in the Chinese family setting, when COVID-19-related measures prompt schools to switch to online classes—often without prior notice—it is frequently the working mothers that have to stay at home with their children. Addressing this issue requires flexibility as well as targeted planning from the workplace.

Another way one member company uses to help women move ahead in their careers is by encouraging all employees to apply for open positions within the company rather than waiting for a promotion. This policy empowers all employees to take control of their own careers, and helps dispel the lingering effects of gender bias.

Cross-industry Mentor Initiative (CIMI)

The European Chamber also actively takes part in promoting gender diversity among top leadership within its member companies. First launched in late 2019, the Chamber’s CIMI has already concluded three cycles, all focussing on improving female representation at top corporate levels. The programme partners mid- to senior-level female managers in China with C-suite leaders of European business in China, who help to impart the additional skills and knowledge required for managers to take the next step in their careers. Each cycle of the CIMI consists of a part-time course lasting approximately six months. The fourth cycle of the CIMI will run between December 2022 and June 2023.

[1]The Industry Gender Gap: Women and Work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, p. 5., World Economic Forum, January 2016, viewed 11th November 2022, <https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_FOJ_Executive_Summary_GenderGap.pdf>