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Gender Issues and Barriers in Chinese Business

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What kind of barriers blocked (interrupt) female to be an organization leader in China?



China is one of the most populous countries in the world, with over 50 percent of its female population in full time work. Like many other countries, China’s women are under-represented in senior management or organisational leadership roles within Chinese organisations. Yet Chinese women are being educated as well as men, if not better, and benefit from fundamental policies which prevent discrimination in the world of work. It appears that there are barriers which affect Chinese women’s ability to advance along the career ladder to become organisation leaders.

A qualitative, Grounded Theory based study was carried out to determine what, if any, were the barriers to women becoming organisation leaders in China. The study aimed to ensure a focus on women themselves and so the sample comprised women already working within Chinese businesses and organisations, who were asked to identify barriers to their becoming business leaders or senior executives. Sensitising questions followed up an initial questionnaire and proforma, to probe into more detail about their responses.

The Grounded Theory process of Open, Axial and Selective Coding was followed systematically, and the final three categories of Leadership Effectiveness, Stereotypes and Preconceptions, and Social and Societal Norms and Expectations and Personal Characteristics were identified and discussed. It seems that the key barriers to women becoming organisational leaders are their capacity to be effective leaders, the stereotypes and preconceptions of them as women workers, on the part of others and on the part of the women themselves, and the social norms versus their personal characteristics. This last category included unique aspects of Chinese culture and business etiquette which pose significant challenges for women in leadership roles.

More research is now needed to explore in more concrete ways these barriers, and to identify practical and achievable ways that they might be overcome.


China is one of the most populous nations in the world (Saran and Guo, 2005). “China is a large country, with more than half a billion women, over 50 per cent of who are in full-time employment” (Cooke, 2004 p 243). This represents a significant percentage of the workforce. There is, apparently, a discrepancy between the numbers of women in employment and the numbers of women who achieve senior leadership roles within Chinese organisations. It seems that “knowledge about these Chinese women in general and women in management in specific, remains very limited” (Cooke, 2004 p 243). There appear to be very little sources of information on the numbers of women in senior management or leadership positions in either the public or the private sector in China. While this may not seem to be a surprise to many, it does beg the question of why women do not achieve senior leadership positions within businesses and organisations in China, particularly given a growing awareness of China’s success within the global business environment, which must influence business and organisational practices. It is established within the business and organisational literature, as well as other social literature, that “gender discrimination remains a reality in our society” (Agars, 2004 p 103). This is despite evolution of societies and apparent changes in values, because there is evidence that in all aspects of social life people and their reactions and judgements are affected by gender stereotypes and preconceptions (Agars, 2004). It is also well known that there are more men than women in managerial roles in the business and occupational world (Lublin, 1996), and this disparity increases the higher the seniority of the position (Agars, 2004; Adler and Izraili, 1994; AMBA, 1996).

The rationale for investigating the barriers which block or interrupt women from being organisation leaders in China stems partly from the great reliance of the Chinese economy on its economic capacity, and in particular its business capacity, locally and in the global marketplace. Economic success of developing countries (if China can still be considered such) is clearly linked to gender equality (Morrison and Jutting, 2005). If Chinese businesses are to succeed, they need to espouse and contain the characteristics of successful businesses. If Chinese state organisations are to function at their optimal capacity and make best use of available resources, they should optimise their usage of those resources, a significant one being their human resources. Women may be being overlooked as potentially valuable contributors to senior management and leadership positions. However, this may simply reflect the lower status of women in Chinese society (Tian et al, 2007). Paradoxically, Chinese women are not necessarily viewed by all as of lower status. Foo et al (2006) quote a United Nations Development Fund study which summarises Chinese women as outshining men in the business arena because they are better at communications; they are able to think more rationally; and because they pursue their careers with single-minded resolve. Yet there is ongoing evidence that these women are still under-represented in senior leadership roles.

Noble (2006) states “excluding women from leadership roles impacts on productivity and militates against a workforce characterised by a diversity of workers” (p 599). This idea of gender inequality comes down to simple business sense. “Models of women in senior positions and in equal numbers generally benefit the institutions offering different perspectives, experiences and contributions women can make. (Noble, 2006 p 599). Noble (2006) describes the lack of women in such roles as a “wastage of management and leadership talent which arises from and is perpetuated by the current under representation of women at senior levels,” and which “seriously undermines organisations’ ability to respond to change and threatens its future viability and vitality in the face of the economic challenges of the changing workplace.” p 599). Therefore, it can easily be seen that for optimal business performance, the capacity of women to contribute to its success should not be overlooked, and so a study into the barriers which face women in achieving such positions could be of considerable significance for such organisations within China.

However, the other rationale for this choice of investigation is to promote the interests of women within the Chinese world of employment and entrepreneurship, and to ensure that the research carried out focuses on their perspectives and illuminates their experiences. It is typical of the business world that the theoretical arena it is supported by is dominated by studies based on rationalistic principles and on outputs and outcomes relating to success and factors which contribute to that success. There is a human dimension of business, which the theoretical domain is now starting to appreciate, in which business capacity and success can be found to be reliant not only on the skills of the workforce, but on their capacity to contribute in multiple ways to the organisation and its outputs. Understanding the views and experiences of women may help not only to define the barriers which face them in relation to achieving leadership roles, but to set out some ways in which such barriers might be overcome, sidestepped, reduce or even removed from their path. Women within employment seem to consistently suffer, at a certain level, from a relative inequality with men. Women in China, however, have for a long time enjoyed employment rights based on equality legislation which has shaped social norms to support women into full time employment, which continues throughout their working lives, even when they have children (Cooke, 2004). Despite this, women do not enjoy the same levels of seniority in organisations and businesses as men do, and certainly not in similar numbers. This is a human rights issue (Noble, 2006) and one which is of concern to China and to all women and women’s activists. It may be related to a trend within former socialist countries of what Fan (2003) calls ‘transition’, which is characterised by a resurgence of gendered differences in occupational spheres.

Because China is a business culture in a state of transition and change, and in which the effects of change may not be realised for some time, there is a need for investigative studies which explore the characteristics of this culture, from the points of view of those within it. There is an issue here about understanding what barriers present themselves to women who aspire to leadership roles, but also, whether or not women in these Chinese business and occupational spheres do view themselves as working towards such advancements.

Because of the lack of empirical research on the subject of the barriers which present themselves to women who wish to aspire to leadership roles in organisations in China, the choice of methodological approach for the inquiry was limited, as quantitative studies are based on hypotheses developed from previously published research. Good quality quantitative research studies also require large samples of a diverse study population, and the limitations of this academic research project do not allow for the kind of survey that would provide adequate numbers, statistically, for a purely quantitative study. Therefore, having explored a range of options for the investigation of the research question, the author came to the conclusion that a quantitative approach would be best suited to this area. However, the author was keen to include simple descriptive statistics within the study data, and also wanted to achieve a similar level of rigour as is usually achievable within the quantitative domain. Therefore, the author settled on the use of Grounded Theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967), which is a methodology derived from symbolic interactionism and within which there are rigidly defined stages of the investigation, with clearly outlined process and steps towards the development of theoretical understandings which nevertheless remain firmly grounded in the data derived from the study (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Goulding, 2005).

The following dissertation is set out within the traditional parameters required by the university and by the academic standards of higher education. There is first a literature review, then a description and exploration of the methodology utilised within the study. This is followed by an outline of the data characteristics and background, which is then followed an exploration and discussion of the qualitative data derived from the study. This data is considered and evaluated alongside extant research findings which relate to the data, as is required by the Grounded Theory method, in which data analysis and literature analysis occur simultaneously, such that the accessed literature is treated much as the data is, and subject to the same constant comparison (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). This is followed by conclusions and recommendations for practice and further research. The study aimed to illuminate the murky depths of untapped knowledge and understanding of the barriers which interrupt women’s career progression within Chinese organisations, and thus barriers will be identified and to some extent, their meanings or significance explored. The literature review and the data analysis are separated into themed subheadings, to better signpost the emergent discursive threads of the study. Literature Review

Due to the nature of the topic area, it is not possible to address all the available literature, but a critical literature review of key issues will be attempted. The literature review draws on sources related to Chinese business, women in business, entrepreneurship, social theory and even feminist theory, as well as general business and organisational studies, in order to explore the potential barriers that might have already been identified as challenging women to be organisational leaders. The balance of research is affected by the available literature, and by the nature of the research which has already been carried out into similar topics. Little however is written, in terms of empirical research, which directly addresses this dissertation’s research question. However, there are valuable contributions to be made by research from across the business and organisational literature in relation to generic and specific factors affecting women’s opportunities to become organisational leaders.

China has a vast area of land, and is characterised by considerable social, economic, geographic and ethnic diversity (Chow et al, 2004). Only those factors which can directly be related to the study question will be addressed here. This will allow for the setting of the context and current understanding of the factors which affect the experience of women in China aspiring to become organisational and business leaders. In China, women work alongside their husbands throughout their lifespan, and are supported by employment policies which assure them a reasonably equal role as workers, in terms of basic employment rights (Chow et al, 2004). Therefore, women have a firm foundation within the world of employment, and should, it could be argued, be surrounded by the same opportunities as their male counterparts in terms of career advancement. However, this does not seem to be the case.

It is a global feature of business that women seem to experience what is known as the ‘glass ceiling’ within occupational life (Ryan and Haslam, 2005; Cortis and Cassar, 2005). This refers to the fact that women can attain up to a certain level of seniority in many organisations or businesses, but cannot break through into senior leadership roles. There are numerous studies which explore how and why this glass ceiling came to exist, and how it is perpetuated. In terms of Chinese culture, there are strong traditions of loyalty to family and loyalty to one’s boss or employer (Fu et al, 2004). This author would question whether this notion of loyalty contributes to the glass ceiling within Chinese organisations.


Obviously, the first and most obvious potential barrier for women in business in China (and in any other culture or nation-state) is that of gender. Gender within this context needs defining, as theoretically, it is still the subject of some argument. Ahl (2006) refers back to feminist scholarship which employed the term gender to distinguish between biological sex and socially constructed definitions of sex, the social practices and representations associated with femininity or masculinity” (p 596). In this article, gender is used to refer to sex in terms of the biological differences between male and female, and the socially-constructed models of masculine and feminine. It is important to note that these may differ according to Western and Chinese norms, and where possible, differentiations between cultural definitions of gender will be highlighted.

It has long been known that business is a male or masculine domain. There has been research which suggests that men and women even differ in terms of occupational aspirations, such that males would tend to aspire towards male-dominated occupations in which they can hope for better success, and women, though to a somewhat lesser extent, showing a tendency to veer towards female-dominated occupations in which they are more likely to be able to excel more easily (Powell and Butterfield, 2003). This may be partly due to historical and even current forms of gender discrimination within business and occupational/professional spheres. Gender discrimination however is no longer as apparent as it used to be, thanks to anti-discrimination policies in most organisations and nations (Beck and Davis, 2005). However, in China, “the half a century’s state intervention in women’s employment has largely focused on protecting women’s labour rights and increasing their share in employment quantitatively, whereas little provision exists which aims to ensure and improve the quality of women’s employment prospects” (Cooke, 2004 p 245). Cooke (2004) shows that women are less represented in professional or management positions, and are more prevalent in clerical and lower-level manual work (Sargeson 2006; Sargeson 2007a).

This is significant, given that Chinese women do not traditionally take career breaks to have children, and view their role as equal to that of their husbands in terms of full time work (Cooke, 2004; Sargeson 2007b). This is in direct contrast to the Westernised (and perhaps globalised) norms of women’s occupational experience, wherein women have to either accepted diminished occupational capacity and career advancement in order to have children, or embrace childlessness in order to comply with inherent business norms and achieve success within those parameters (Wood and Newton, 2006; Burke, 1999). Even so, “men make up the majority of employees in most of the occupations and in state owned sectors where average earnings are highest” (Cooke, 2004 p 245). This is no new finding.

For women in China, “historical and socio-political factors such as the legacy of Marxism, state/party control, economic reform, political upheavals, local conditions and global influences” have affected their self identity, they understanding of their place within the business and employment worlds, and the ways in which they perceive of and experience their career progress and success (Chow et al, 2004, p 161). China has followed an intellectual revolution which has brought to the fore gender studies and feminist studies (Chow et al, 2004), which suggests that the cultural response would likely be that women are more aware of the kinds of organisational and societal cultural barriers to their career advancement into leadership roles.

Studying Chinese women’s experiences of barriers to career advancement could be problematic, however, because the very terms used by Westernised scholarly discourse to describe issues of gender and women’s equal rights are essentially difficult to translate (Chow et al, 2004). However, as all literature for this assignment is accessed in English, this should only be viewed as a potential weakness to the study if the respondents are first language Chinese and there are discrepancies between underlying meanings.

Another feature of gender discrimination in Chinese business is the fact that the “state-owned enterprises and public-sector organisations typically operate in an internal labour market system in which jobs are rarely advertised, and promotion decisions are made internally…by superiors” (Cooke, 2004, p 249). This means that internal cultural and business mores and codes, which are often set and perpetuated by managers and leaders (who are most likely men), are perpetuated in a way that might exclude women from achieving advancement (Boisot and Child, 1996; Church et al, 2003). These are however buried, often, and not easily labelled as gender discrimination (Beck and Davis, 2005). This is a common feature of all businesses and organisations, it seems, which continue to operate along traditional ‘patriarchal’ and hierarchical lines.

Cultural issues also point to gender issues which may present as barriers to women’s career advancement (Brush, 1992). Hanser (2005) explores emerging conceptions of gender in China, in relation, in particular, to service work. This ethnographic study within three urban Chinese retain settings shows that there are gendered class distinctions which are communicated and perpetuated within this sector, which a move from socialism to a more marketized society, wherein younger, youthful and feminine (and urban) women are valued while older and rural women are devalued (Hanser, 2005; Duehr and Bono, 2006). This is reflected in other international contexts and other types of societies (Egri and Ralston, 2004). Hanser (2005) related this to a legitmization of certain roles for certain women within Chinese employment contexts, a fact supported by Coe (1992). This then has nothing to do with role effectiveness, but to do with the external characteristics of women (Hanser, 2005; Cooke; 2003; Cooke, 2005). Appropriate ‘behaviours’ may be reinforced and inappropriate behaviours censured by such limited characterisations of the suitable female employee (Hanser, 2005). Lewis (2006) uses the example of women entrepreneurs, and suggests that “the behaviour (business or other) of women involved in entrepreneurial activity of whatever sort is defined and evaluated according to the standards of an invisible masculine norm” (p 453). This shows that underlying business activities are gendered definitions of how people within the market should behave and present themselves (Collinson and Collinson, 1990; Connell, 2005). Because of this, women’s ability to gain commercial, business or occupational success is defined and constrained by apparently unseen (but very real) forces (Cornelius and Skinner, 2008):

“Where this behaviour is judged as differing from the normative standard of serious, professional business, women experience an ‘othering’ as the non-male and are marked out.” (Lewis, 2006 p 453).

This is a constant theme of the business literature, that the male is the standard and the female is viewed as ‘other’, as unconventional, as non-standard (and perhaps inherently non-compliant) (Beechey, 1987).

Perceptions of gender and gender limitations may also be internalised by many women, and may explain one reason why women do not lead as many successful businesses as men, or are not business leaders as frequently (Bryman, 1987). Kalleberg and Leicht (2005) show that women are less likely to innovate, take risks or step out in new directions in business than men, perhaps due to “the social disapproval girls are likely to incur for straying from socially accepted, gender-normative patterns of behaviour, and the encouragement and tolerance that boys typically receive for engaging in innovative play and nonconforming behaviour” (p 142).


It is thought by some theorists that the lower representation of women in senior positions is due to their marginally lower levels of education compared to those of men in China (Cooke, 2004). However, it is also apparent that amount of women in higher education has been increasing recently in China, at a much faster rate than men (Cooke, 2004). Education is seen as a key to senior executive careers (Baruch and Peiperl, 2000; Bickerstaffe, 1992; Carpenter, 1997). This would suggest that the relative lack of education suggested as a barrier to women achieving senior leadership roles may be a factor which is being rapidly eroded. However, it is hard to find evidence of this. Cooke (2004) also argues that “discrimination against women starts in the recruitment selection to higher education in institutions” (p 247), and this has follow-on effects throughout their subsequent careers. Women are under-represented in certain subjects, including science and business subjects, and have to perform better than men to achieve the same levels of acclaim (Cooke, 2004).

Bahry and Marr (2005) show how women’s education in Qatar has developed to such an extent that women are being over-represented in higher education, and that this might signify a shift in gender-dominance in future business domains. However, the nature of this education is not necessarily such that it would develop the kinds of abilities and capacities that are needed in order to gain leadership roles later on in life (Bahry and Marr, 2005).

Globalisation and the current international business environment

It is important to consider where women business leaders or potential business leaders in China might locate themselves, ideologically and paradigmatically, and how the current environment might affect their ability to assume such senior roles. Mamman and Liu (2008) discuss the difference between macro-level examinations of globalisation on business (and on culture and society), and the micro-level, in which the effects of globalisation on individuals can be appreciated. Globalisation can potentially affect all areas of business (Gunkel et al, 2007). China has, since the 1980s, both embraced and significantly benefited from industrial and business globalisation (Fishman, 2006; Hirst and Thompson, 1999; Stiglitz, 2002; 2003; 2006). According to Mamman and Liu (2008), “globalisation is particularly important to a society like China where the impact of globalization can have both positive and negative connotations depending on where individuals are geographically located and whether they operate in the public or private sector” (p 2). Thus, there may be barriers to achieving career success or business leadership for women in China which are directly related to their personal experience or understanding of globalisation. Mamman and Liu (2008) suggest that “the form and manner in which globalization is pursued by organizations (private or public) and the nation states is an aggregation of thoughts and behaviour of individuals enabled and constrained by global forces” (p 6).

This kind of understanding would suggest that global forces may act as barriers to women becoming business leaders, but it could also be viewed that globalisation could likely be an emancipating force for women in China, because it might at least provide role models for business leadership in other areas and across a diverse range of businesses (Elliott and Stead, 2008). However, it is not enough to cite the forces that emerge from globalisation, such as greater participation in more diverse markets or the presence of women peers with which to do business. It is also important to understand the individual level of response to the new global business environment. It seems that “to understand why and how organizations and institutions behave in the global economy, we also need to understand how key actors interpret global phenomenon” (p 6). Therefore, accessing individual women who work within business, and women who are seeking to develop as entrepreneurs, would provide this personal understanding of the global forces of business and perhaps identify more individual as well as international barriers to women succeeding as business leaders.

Globalisation is viewed in the business literature usually in positive terms (Mittelman, 2006), but Oka (1998) argues that this may not be the case. Oka (1998) suggests that the terminology of globalisation has “a distinct connotation of something whole …[that] suggests absolute relatedness, harmony, balance and smoothness” (p 32). However, this, according to Oka (1998) is not the case, and there is the argument that globalisation might corrupt social values which underpin society and over-value economics and material gain. However, given the current socialist model of society and economy in China, globalisation may not necessarily be a destabilising force, and the history of business in China in the last two decades certainly suggests that the country and its industry has taken full advantage of the opportunities globalisation presents (Mamman and Liu, 2008; Parker, 2005).

Mamman and Liu (2008) carried out research in individual views and responses to globalisation in China, and found that “respondents view globalization from economic perspective rather than from cultural convergence or political convergence perspective.” (p 32). This suggests that globalisation is most significant to industry and business for Chinese women in business. Mamman and Liu (2008) also state that their respondents viewed globalisation as a product of capitalism: “they view globalization not only as economic activities but as a philosophical and ideological (not cultural) shift in the way the world conducts economic activities” P 32).

This research suggests that globalisation is not part of a potential package of cultural barriers to women business or organisation leaders in China. But Child (2002) does underline the potential cultural conflicts which might challenge women in responding to global business markets, if they have not really had the appropriate training, experience or support during their business or organisational careers. Yet, it may be that many women who wish to assume leadership positions in China are not challenged by global forces or by potential cultural differences, simply because they take a pragmatic view of business and leadership. For these, globalisation might erode barriers to them achieving such roles (Dunning, 2003; Fiss and Hirsch, 2005).

Understanding the global context however, is possible from international literature. Beck and Davis (2005) cite the case of a financial organisation Australia that was attempting to increase the numbers of women at managerial level. This organisation had to overcome not only attitudinal barriers but personal barriers (Beck and Davis, 2005). Bahry and Marr, (2005) discuss the social and ideological shifts which have changed women’s roles and status in Quatar, such that they may be becoming more endowed with the capacity to take on leadership roles. However, Singh and Vinnicombe (2004) show that it is still the norm that masculine senior level managers and boards maintain their hegemonic status:

“Evidence shows that senior women do not easily gain access to the boardroom, where an elite group of male directors maintain their power” (Singh and Vinnicombe, 2004 p 479).

If Chinese businesses are being significantly affected by Westernised business practices, there is the potential that these practices present more barriers to women taking on senior leadership positions, rather than helped to change entrenched cultural values which have been seen as inherent in Chinese business practice. Gobalisation may therefore be viewed as a source of new hurdles and obstacles to be surmounted for women in China. These barriers include what are described as ‘informal’ or ‘hidden’ processes associated with senior promotion (Alimo-Metcalfe, 1995), a relative lack of appropriate and available career development routes and activities (Ragins et al, 1998), and, the more obvious barrier, the lower levels of pay allocated to women (Oakley, 2000). There are also behavioural and cultural barriers, which include the gender role stereotyping of leadership capability (Schein and Muller, 2002), communication styles which reflect gendered differences (Tannen, 1994), and the social exclusion, corporate cultural norms, entrenched power dynamics and old boys’ networks which characterise British and American businesses (Ragins Sundstrom, 1989). It can be seen that while there may be similarities in Chinese businesses in terms of barriers which emerge from traditional business norms and behaviours, there may be others which could be derived from the businesses they are exposed to in the Global marketplace. Therefore, Chinese women may find themselves having to face and adapt to more or different challenges to ascending the corporate or organisational ladder.

Personal Capabilities

Other factors which may affect women’s career success at senior level is a perception that they are not capable of leading businesses as well as men (Cooke, 2004; Kalleberg and Leicht, 2005; Fischlmayr, 2002), and the women being faced with competing family demands, particularly from children (Beatty, 1996). This is not necessarily the case in China, however, because it has become the cultural norm for women to work full time, even after having had children, and women do not take career breaks to have children, a fact which is facilitated by the one-child rule (Cooke, 2004).

Women may be viewed however in terms of their gender and this will likely affect not only perceptions of their effectiveness as leaders, but evaluations of their success as well (Gunkel et al, 2007; Gutek, 1985; Fondas, 1997). Ryan and Haslam (2005) suggest that when traditional masculine measures and markers of leadership behaviour and effectiveness are used to evaluate women as leaders, their effectiveness may be viewed as less than that of their male counterparts. Other literature supports this (Hearn, 1987). However, some theorists argue that women, because of their gender, are likely to be more, not less, effective in leadership and senior management roles (Regine and Lewin, 2003). Regine and Lewin (2003) argue for the centrality of relationships to business success, and that, in the increasingly complex world of business, women have unique capacities to manage that complexity. Regine and Lewin (2003) suggest that because some women possess ‘caring’ type behaviours and can develop masculine-type leadership behaviours such as analytical behaviours and being action-oriented, they actually possess a significant advantage over men (and other women) who do not have this combined capacity. This is an interesting finding, because it underlines the potential for women to capitalise on their supposed innate characteristics as well as acquiring other necessary (if foreign) characteristics, and so become leaders who transcend the limitations of either stereotyped gender. Pini (2005) however suggests that women leaders in certain businesses must become neither women or men, neither feminine or masculine, but a ‘third gender’ which transcends these stereotypes, and that men do not have to undergo this identity transition and all the challenges inherent within it. Pini (2005) suggests that this reflects ongoing norms and standards within business as a whole, where there is an “uneasy fit between socially constructed notions of what it means to be a woman and a leader” (p 73).

However, it would seem that women’s skills and abilities may largely remain invisible within the wider world of work. Regine and Lewin (2003) argue that even when women attain leadership roles “their talent and intention as leaders is unseen and misunderstood, and their achievements attributed to luck rather than savvy.” (p 348). According to Singh and Vinnicombe (2004), women in businesses areoften prevented from achieving senior positions because they are perceived by other senior staff as having a lack of necessary or sufficient management experience, and/or a lack of longevity within the firm or within a ‘career track’ position within the firm. Women, on the other hand, perceived that they were unable to break through these barriers because they did not belong to the informal networks of the business, that were largely male-dominated (Vinnicombe, 2004). Women’s personal attributes, professional style and leadership style may also be viewed as a barrier (Vinnicombe, 2004), although this could relate back to the gendered constructions and cultural norms discussed above.

The lack of same-gender role models may play a part in the perpetuation of the masculine-dominated hierarchies within Chinese businesses and organisations. Beliefs and attitudes can be viewed as either static or malleable (Dasgupta and Asgari, 2004), although this author would argue that the both might be true. There may be underlying beliefs and attitudes which do not change, and others which do change over time, as individuals are exposed to different concepts, ideas, experiences and even role models. Dasgupta and Asgari (2004) suggest that there are “conditions under which exposure to admired and counterstereotypic individuals can reduce automatic biases” (p 643). This would suggest that if women can be exposed to positive female role models, and also to unconventional or differently-modelled hierarchies, they might review or change their internal schema and develop more internal self-concepts which would allow them to become leaders and managers. Certainly the lack of role models may be viewed as a barrier to becoming a leader, not just from the point of view of the women themselves who are seeking such positions, but from the point of view of the other people working within the organisations. In order to lead, the individual must have people who wish to follow them.

There is some evidence to show that within some areas of business, women are not necessarily advantaged by taking on leadership roles (Laufer, 1998; Liff, 1989), and for some women, these roles are awarded during times of business difficulty. Ryan and Haslam (2005) describe this as follows:

“It appears that women are likely to be placed in positions of leadership in circumstances of general financial downturn and downturn in company performance. In this way, such women can be seen to be placed on top of a ‘glass cliff’, in the sense that their leadership appointments are made in problematic organizational circumstances and hence are more precarious” (p 87).

However, Ryan and Haslam’s (2005) research was carried out only in FTSE 100 companies, and was not carried out specifically in Chinese companies. This kind of behaviour may be characteristic of Western models of business and of organisational cultures which are not so similar to the Chinese norm. Other forms of business models might affect women’s roles and success, and also might affect how they come to view their potential to step into leadership positions.

For example, there is some research on the role of women in family businesses. Vera and Dean (2005) cite hierarchical structures in family businesses within which women have to contend with similar gender constraints as women do in the wider world, but which seem all the more restricting because they view themselves as just as capable as their male siblings of ascending to the family throne, as it were. Vera and Dean (2005) cite incidences of family businesses where families would rather sell the business than have a daughter succeed her father in running the business. Women in family businesses are often brought in to carry out roles consistent with their female gender (Vera and Dean, 2005). This notion of kinship however is complex, and while nepotism and other associations with business kinship connections are present in Chinese business culture, some authors argue that this is not to such an extent that it would be detrimental to the business (Stewart, 2003; House et al, 2002; Huo and Randall, 1991). Therefore, kinship ties may define business decisions (such as promotion) if this is seen as advantageous to the organisation, for whatever reason. This returns the argument to the gender inequalities described above, and the perceptions of the limitations of female gender in relation to assuring business or organisational effectiveness or success. It also relates to the concept of organisational norms, which Bergenhenegouwen (1996)describes as individual norms and values which have been introduced and perpetuated by the founders, stakeholders and senior leaders and managers of the organisation, and which are also perpetuated by the ongoing experiences of the organization, further refined and defined by nature of the organization (Jieyu, 2007).


The methodological approach to this field of inquiry was of considerable interest to the author and posed the most significant challenge in developing the dissertation. This was partly due to the nature of the dissertation, which required primary research of some kind, and partly to the nature of the topic, which would make it challenging to access large numbers of respondents to typical surveys. However, the author was influenced by the desire to understand individual women’s perspectives, much as Mamman and Liu (2008) did, and to explore these from a larger perspective than one single organisation, which meant that a case study approach, such as that carried out by Beck and Davis (2005), was also ruled out. Action research was also considered, as some studies show its effectiveness in Chinese contexts (Hughes and Yuan, 2005). However, the nature of this study and the researcher’s own access to appropriate organisations made this approach impractical. Similarly, an archival study such as that carried out by Ryan and Haslam (2005) was also impractical, due to difficulties in gaining access to sufficient numbers of appropriate archive materials.

The focus of the research has always firmly been on understanding the ways that women are disadvantaged in the worlds of work and business within the chosen location, and to give voice to these women and draw attention to areas where improvements are needed, and where further research could best be carried out. Part of this contains a goal to carry out research which does not repeat old patterns and ideas and which might counter the prevailing masculinist leanings of much research within the field. Ahl (2006) states that “research articles on women’s entrepreneurship reveal, in spite of intentions to the contrary and in spite of inconclusive research results, a tendency to recreate the idea of women as being secondary to men and of women’s businesses as being of less significance, or at best, as being a complement” (p 595). This can be carried over to investigations of women leaders, and shows that women remain at a disadvantage even within the academic and research spheres. Therefore, the qualitative model of Grounded Theory was espoused as a means by which the research could be fully grounded in the realities of those being researched, and influenced as little as possible by the limitations of dominant discourses within business and organisational studies, because Grounded Theory was conceived of as a methodology which develops theory fully grounded in the words, actions, and experiences of those under investigation (Goulding, 2005).

Having carried out a literature review on the topic, the author became aware that there was very little primary research carried out on this topic. Thus this was an exploratory study in which the author would be able to generate some illuminating data about the topic, which might also then inform future, larger scale studies. The aim was to sample women from a number of organisations and businesses in China, to gain their views of what the barriers to their ascension into leadership roles might be. This might also mean that there would be views gleaned from different organisational and business backgrounds and so a broader viewpoint would be represented. Choosing a methodology is a difficult process, and one which is not as easy as it might seem on first conceiving of a research question (Ali, 1998). Cohen et al (2007) also show that it is not always possible to carry out qualitative research without drawing on information from other disciplines, but this author was able to find ample instances of the useful application of qualitative methodologies within the fields of management, business and organisational studies (Locke, 2001; Hunter et al, 2005; Fernandez, 2004; Douglas, 2004; Trim and Lee, 2004; Geiger and Turley, 2003). A qualitative methodology was believed to be the most suitable approach, but the author was concerned about the quality of such research and its suitability for a project such as this. Other authors have identified the relatively low status of qualitative research within the academic and business domains, because it is viewed as less rigorous and of poorer quality, with limited application (Glesne, 1999). Quantitative research, on the other hand, has a reputation for accuracy and transferability, derived from is alignment with the dominant models of rationalism and scientific principles. The author was aware that for the purposes of this study, a purely quantitative study would provide the kinds of data which could be readily applied to development of business practice or more easily used to inform the knowledge arena on this subject. However, because of the nature of the research question, and the fact that it is concerned not solely with statistics but with social lives and lived experiences, the author felt justified in taking a qualitative approach. As Avis (2003) points out, quantitative research, as a “positivist, measurement-oriented, and rule-governed form of scientific method is unsuitable for investigations of the emergent and constructional aspects of intentional human social behaviour” (p 995). Grounded Theory does have some limitations, including the need to stick rigidly to the protocol (Selden, 2005).

The incorporation of a simple statistics, however, was in line with the methodology, and can be viewed as a form of triangulation of data collection methods, which would enhance the rigour of the study (Dollard et al, 2003; De Vaus, 2001). Ensuring auditability and transparency of every part of the study process was another means of enhancing the rigour of the study (Dawson, 2002; Blaxter et al, 2007).

Pragmatic reasons also affected the choice of methodology, because, as Kulka (1982), shows, practical issues such as cost, access to respondents and other sources of data, and skills of the researcher, not to mention time, are likely to affect the research design as much as the research question itself. The author opted to avoid a quantitative approach simply because of this practicality (Silverman, 1998; Grix, 2004). The nature of the question supported the qualitative approach because it was more of an exploration of the issue rather than an examination or testing of an hypothesis (Silverman, 2001). It is more of a process of knowledge production (Partington, 2000; Gill and Johnson, 2002), and is particularly suited to studies where literature searching turns up no significant body of evidence relating to the field of interest (Hill et al, 2003). Grounded Theory has also been described within management research as a methodology that is very suitable for ‘practitioner research’ (Piantanida et al, 2003).

According to Partington (2000), it is entirely appropriate to challenge the dominant quantitative and deductive research paradigms which dominate the management field, because such forms of research do not provide all of the answers to the questions that challenge business studies and studies of organisations. It is important to be able to take into consideration all of the interactions and factors which affect such questions, and in order to do this, more inductive forms of research are needed (Douglas, 2003).

As an interpretive, hermeneutic process, Grounded Theory research helps researchers to develop a deeper understanding of the underlying meanings of the concepts identified (Parker and Roffey, 1997). It is also aligned with problem-solving (Haig, 1995), and the development of potentially multitudinous answers to the research questions (Goulding, 1998; Macri et al, 2000; Gerson, 1990).

The types of data that can be used within Grounded Theory studies include interview data, field data, existing literature, documents and artefacts (Douglas, 2003); life histories (McKinley-Wright, 1995; Clondinin and Connelly, 1994 in Goulding, 2005), and numerical data and simple statistics (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Glaser, 2005). The chosen data in this study were derived from a questionnaire providing simple statistics, and a proforma which was answered by email, the participants being encouraged to provide as much detail as possible. Further questioning via email elicited more depth and detail about key areas of the research, in line with the GT process (Goulding, 2005). Data Description and Background

The data were derived from women working in 12 different organisations or businesses in China. Many of these were financial institutions; two were from higher educational institutions, two from medical institutions, and the rest from medium to large size organisations who were connected to or known by the author or the respondents, some of which were state owned organisations. The sample was a purposive convenience sample from organisations that the author was able to access, and while this represents a limitation to the study, the use of convenience samples is acceptable in exploratory, qualitative studies.

According to Corbin (1998) and Silverman (2001), purposive samples are typical for qualitative research studies, and are suitable when there is limited access to the potential data sources, as is the case in this study, in order to secure a larger sample. A larger sample would have the advantage of being more likely to represent all of the many and varied variables which would affect human experiences, particularly in this type of study, but as long as there is a rationale for the sampling process (Corbin, 1998), this is deemed adequate.

Within Grounded Theory studies, it is established practice that selection of the research sample should involve those participating in the phenomena being investigated (LoBiondo-Wood & Haber, 1998 in Hill et al, 2003; Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Therefore, the process of ‘forward-chaining’ was employed, wherein individual women identified within key organisations were asked to identify other women who could contribute to the study and to forward the email questionnaire on to these women and encourage them to participate. This is an innovative method of expanding the ‘net’ of email questionnaire distribution and may help to maximise rates of return.

The data was collected via an email questionnaire and proforma, distributed to respondents along with an information sheet about the study and its potential uses. The information sheet assured the respondents of anonymity after collection of data, destruction of all personal details or identifying features, and the option to opt out of the study at any time. The questionnaire asked closed-ended questions and gathered simple statistical and demographic information which might be pertinent to the study. It is also standard practice within Grounded Theory to use numbers and simple statistics in this way (Glaser and Strauss, 1967).

Of 25 women initially contacted, 17 returned the questionnaire and proforma. Ten of those who did respond forwarded the email on to other colleagues within their own organisation, or to contacts within another organisation. This resulted in a further 10 responses, which gave a total of 27 completed questionnaires and proformas, which was deemed an adequate enough sample. The proformas consisted of a set of open ended questions which acted like an email ‘interview’. Glaser and Strauss (1967) advocate the use of sensitising questions during data analysis, so the proformas were then used as a means of asking further questions of the respondents via email. These sensitising questions allowed the researcher to gather further details on key aspects of the data. The ease of use of email for this process was a significant advantage in doing this, and the author found that data collection was streamlined by using email.

In Grounded Theory, it is normal for data collection and analysis to take place simultaneously (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Glaser 1978; Glaser, 2005), and so data analysis was commenced on receipt of the first response and continued during the further collection period. Glaser (2005) also believes that data collection should only continue until saturation of data categories is achieved. Data saturation means that even when new data is introduced, no new concepts, meanings or themes are emerging (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). During the qualitative data analysis and constant comparison with literature sources, data saturation was achieved after the analysis of the first 19 questionnaires, but because of the nature of the study, and the author’s own awareness of the complex and diverse nature of Chinese society, data from the whole sample were included in the study. The author believes that this would add to the validity and reliability of the findings and the depth of the analysis and subsequent recommendations for future action.

The simple statistics are presented in tabular format below, and shed light on the background to the data and the kinds of respondents who were involved in the study. This would be important information should a similar study be carried out in the future on a larger scale, as it would indicate the kind of population and sample that would likely be involved. It also sheds light on the meaning of the qualitative data, because it shows that these meanings and concepts which emerge from the data are related to the personal and demographic characteristics of this sample of women. Should a more diverse sample be accessed, in a larger study, it might be possible to identify correlations between these characteristics and the other outputs from the data, and perhaps discover new insight into barriers affecting women in this context, and interrupting their progress along the career ladder.

Table 1 Personal Characteristics.





No Children

Age 18-25

Age -26-35

Age 35-55








As can be seen from these personal characteristics, the sample demographics are typical of the types of women found in the general literature in employment. All of the sample had children. This is not unusual in China, and it represents the ongoing socio-political models of a strong work ethic.

Table 2. Employment Characteristics

Manual Level

Clerical Level


Middle Management

Senior Management


Organisational Leader








These employment characteristics show that women in this study had not achieved significant levels of seniority within their firms, and that for the most part, those with any capacity for advancement or promotion, were halted at the middle management level. This may be related to the characteristics of Chinese employment and business cultures and behaviours discussed in the literature review, but the qualitative data below sheds further light on these issues.

For the one woman who was in a senior management position, it should be added that this individual had been in post for over 20 years, within a state-owned educational institution, and had a significant academic reputation in the wider world. This suggests that it is possible for women to break through the glass ceiling, but perhaps only in certain circumstances. This would make yet another interesting study, to identify which women had reached higher levels within their organisation, and to explore the features which characterise their role, themselves, their business, and suchlike. However, there was insufficient scope within this study to look at such correlations, as only one respondent was in such a role. Findings and Data Analysis

Qualitative research has grown in reputation over recent years, and offers a variety of strategies to support researchers in avoiding bias in data analysis, and improve the rigour of their studies (Maysm, 1995). Structured approaches to qualitative data management are ideal, as already suggested, and in particularly for those where data are interpreted through processes of induction, because structures shape this process and provide transparency and auditability (Russell and Gregory, 2003). Auditability is particularly important in qualitative research, because it is one of the key features of a rigorous study in this domain (Denzin and Lincoln, 2004). While some systematic approaches mimic scientific processes of data analysis, such as content analysis, which is a process of counting occurrences of codes, meanings and categories (Pope and Mays, 1995), this study is designed within the Grounded Theory Paradigm, and so the qualitative data were analysed by the sequential stages of Open, Axial and Selective Coding, whereby the data are analysed by constant comparison with themselves and with the literature being simultaneously examined (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Glaser, 2005). Pope and Mays (1995) describe this process as an “ iterative method of content analysis where each category is searched for in the entire data set and all instances are compared until no new categories can be identified”. The term iterative is important here, because the researcher constantly returns to the previously studied data sets to compare new insights with old data in order to determine commonality and validity of themes and codes. From the process outlined above, initial categories derived from the data were further refined until the headings presented below were arrived at during the Selective Coding phase of the research. At this point, the data meanings were those which were most consistently found within the textual data and supported by the literature and simple statistics.

The data categories are discussed below, with some pertinent extracts from the qualitative textual data quoted. All identifying features have been removed from these extracts in order to promote anonymity.

Category 1: Leadership Effectiveness

One of the larger themes which emerged from the data was that of leadership ability and effectiveness. This refers to Chinese women’s abilities as leaders, and their effectiveness, and this effectiveness is linked to a number of different factors which could affect their capability to lead organisations or businesses. A number of concepts linked into this category in diverse ways, and the coding process showed that effectiveness related to the ability to carry out a leadership role, the belief that women themselves had the potential to be effective within such a role within their own organisation, and the belief that such a role would be appropriate for them.

Kalleberg and Leicht (1991) suggest that the size of the industry, and other market characteristics such as the extent of competition within that industry could affect the success of businesses headed by women, perhaps because women tend to engage in smaller enterprises than men. However, the concepts of leadership which apply within China may not be so easily defined as those which are derived from predominantly Western models. For example, the application of leadership models such as transformational leadership may not be effective within Eastern business cultures and practices (Spreitzer et al, 2005). So understanding leadership effectiveness in the context of this study does not necessarily marry up with the traditional models of leadership found in much of the predominantly Western-influenced literature. The kinds of characteristics which might be viewed as contributing to leadership effectiveness for women within Chinese businesses must therefore be derived from the data themselves, if possible.

Kalleberg and Leicht (1991) argue that although there is a perception that men possess the personal characteristics that make them better business leaders than women, this is not the case, and that studies so far suggest an “absence of gender differences in work values and psychological motivations” (p 141). However, there are personal characteristics which might affect women’s comparative effectiveness in this field, one of which is the implicit leadership model which is characteristic of Chinese organisational culture (Ling et al, 2000). Another of these is the fact that in general, women engaging in business and organisational leadership positions are likely to have far less business or leadership experience than their male counterparts (Littrell, 2002), and the other is that “women have less confidence than men in their business ability and are less apt to feel that they can influence the performance of their business” (Kalleberg and Leicht, 1991 p 142).

Pini (2005) relates this to ‘hegemonic masculinity’.

“hegemonic masculinity mobilises around physical strength, adventurousness, emotional neutrality, certainty, control, assertiveness, self-reliance, individuality, competitiveness, instrumental skills, public knowledge, discipline, reason, objectivity and rationality” (p 76).

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