Doing Business in China: Tips for Women

March 10th, 2012

As someone who often speaks at internationally-focused women’s business events on the topic of Chinese Business Culture Intelligence, I am invariably requested to address the unique and additional challenges encountered by women doing business in or with China.
For those actively doing business in China this is seems almost an unimaginable concern. However; this can be a very real apprehension that creates barriers to women-owned or operated SMEs from seriously considering China as a market for their products or services, or integrating China in their supply chain.

Many businesswomen have heard of the challenges that businesses face in China and assume that for women, the challenges will be compounded. This perception does make some logical sense. Many Asian countries with a Confucian-based value system consider men to be superior leaders to women – whether in the family or in the boardroom. In countries such as Japan, the local executive workforce is dominated almost entirely by men, and foreign women can be perceived as an awkward anomaly.

Additionally, in China there is a historical precedent – feudal China’s second and third wives, bound feet and preferences for a male child reinforce assumptions that women in China are less valued than men and therefore not welcome in a male-dominated world of business. I once encountered a well-educated and successful Chinese businessman in his fifties who was the fourth child in his family, and the only son. His 3 older sisters’ Chinese names each had some variation of the meaning, “waiting for baby brother.”

Like everything is China today, things are changing at a breakneck pace. However, a major shift in Mainland China’s attitude toward women in power came from a surprising source – the Cultural Revolution. Mao Zedong believed that if the people of China were to be strong and liberated, the women of China had to be a part of that equation. In proclaiming “women hold up half the sky,” Chairman Mao acknowledged the contributions that women made at all levels of society and ushered in an era were it was not uncommon for women to hold senior positions in both government and business. On a personal level, concubines were outlawed and divorce was legalized. Today, the world’s richest female entrepreneur is Ms. Zhang Yin of China Nine Dragons Paper; a scrap paper recycling company.

Additionally, when western women engage in business in China, they will encounter more than just a business and political culture where women are prominent influencers. Western women’s innate business values and behaviours will often provide a significant advantage when operating within the Chinese business dynamic.

In China, valued and effective leaderships skills include the ability to maintain harmonious interpersonal interactions, the aptitude to understand and leverage social and emotional nuances, and an understated confidence. While Canadian women in business certainly care as equally about profit as men, they tend to use a more inclusive style of leadership and intuitive communication style. Chinese business communications depend upon context and what is not said as much as what is said. The ability to read between the lines and pick up on unspoken context is an invaluable skill.

A typically masculine approach to business – direct speech, business before relationships, impatience to get to the bottom line – is likely to cause friction in China and could delay or even derail positive business development. For instance, losing one’s temper in negotiations or resolving conflicts results in an enormous loss of face on both sides, and could scuttle an agreement regardless of how much profit each side is set to make. And internal and external business is never considered to be a straight forward exchange of cash for services. Managers wishing to retain talented Chinese staff invest time and resources into intangibles – from providing professional development training to regularly inquiring about family members.

Typically there is a significant difference in businesswomen and men in how they approach cultural context in business. Women have a heightened sensitivity to differing cultural norms and an openness to learn. Western men more often regard cultural sensitivity training as optional knowledge and less frequently see the value in trans-cultural preparedness – until they run into challenges.

Granted, there can be some logistical challenges that women in China will face. One issue is that business relationships in China require face-to-face cultivation. This may mean that you have to make several trips to China to cultivate relationships and become a trusted partner, a challenge with young children.

Just being a woman alone will not guarantee business success in China. However; women considering the market should know that they not only will not encounter cultural or social disadvantages compared to men, but can even experience an edge by virtue of typical leadership and communication approaches.

Practical Tips for Women Doing Business in China

  • Women should dress conservatively and slightly formally. Dark-coloured suits – either pants or skirt with nylons – are best.
  • Hierarchy is important in China. If you are the leader of your organization and traveling with a group of men, ask that the men allow you to enter a room first. This signals to your Chinese counterparts that you are the most senior member of your team.
  • China is quite a safe place for women business travelers who use common sense. The biggest danger is of miscommunication and getting lost. Always carry the address of both your hotel and your destination written in Chinese characters. The concierge in your hotel can assist you with this.
  • The cell phone network in China is excellent. Check with your local service provider to find out if you have a locked phone or if it can be unlocked to use SIM cards. If it can be unlocked purchase a SIM card for your phone once you arrive for local calls and for help if you get lost.
  • Share pictures of your family and/or staff – this will create personal connectedness with your Chinese counterparts.
  • Expect many personal questions about your marital status and children.
  • Carry a packet of tissue paper with you at all times. (If you remember nothing else remember this!)
  • Learn a few words of Mandarin greetings and pleasantries. Even the most rudimentary efforts will break the ice.

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