Are Women Stuck In A Men’s Club In China?
Chinese career-minded women in their quest for meritocracy
Chinese women no longer desire just to have a job. They want a progressive career. And the Chinese are realizing that although women are contributing enormously to the country, the playing field still needs to be leveled. In many industries, careers are still not built on merit but on connections and favors. And when building a career active participation in the traditional male dominated “business banquet” is required. For many women such banquets symbolize favoritism and corruption and include sexist and humiliating rituals. But not for much longer, if these women have anything to say about it. The business banquet has become a new battleground for Chinese career-minded women in their quest for equality in a more meritocratic system.
The challenges of navigating a new landscape
Since Mao’s reforms (1950-1970), women have taken every opportunity to gain as much social standing as they can, from accessing free basic education to owning land and participating in the labor market with equal pay as men. Twenty-five percent of senior management positions in China are held by women, in contrast to 18 percent in the US, 24 percent in Europe, and a mere 5 percent in neighboring Japan.  With the increased prospects of learning multiple languages and acquiring overseas experience, more women are aiming at a meritocratic, rewarding, and empowering professional career rather than just a financially stable job. Novels and movies such as The Story of Du Lala’s Promotions have reflected this new phenomenon and reinforced the career-woman trend. Du Lala is a young ambitious woman who makes it in the corporate world, rising up successfully by using her own skills and talents rather than connections. These narratives have been used both as unofficial manuals to move up the ladder and as a source of strength for young women that feel a bit like Du Lala.
Indeed, the story of Du Lala’s self-made success is a big inspiration for many ambitious women as it indirectly represents one of the biggest challenges young women are confronted with today when they enter the labor market with their bag of hopes and qualifications. They are ready to stand at the forefront of progress, but the playing field is still built on an old and patriarchal system. What Du Lala and others like her want to leave behind is a social paradigm where career progress and business deals have been achieved by creating bonds with company seniors and business partners.
Building and constantly reinforcing a good social relationship with seniors at work or with potential business partners is a core practice that has been guaranteeing success in a lot of Chinese companies for decades. Banqueting is, for instance, the most common social practice used to build social ties of obligation and mutual respect vertically (i.e. between senior and junior staff of one company), and horizontally (i.e. between different companies). In these instances, successful performance of the rituals and adherence to etiquette surrounding banquets are essential in facilitating relationship building and demonstrating trust. From seating arrangement rituals to specific dish orders and infamous collective bottoms-up of baijiu shots, guests and hosts must pay a careful attention to each detail in order to achieve a successful banquet and to accomplish what they want professionally.
Historically, women have rarely attended business banquets due to the expectation that they would go home and take care of their family responsibilities after work. More openly, it was also expected for women to not participate in what typically ended as drunken feasts. Banquets—where business deals would be sealed, governmental permissions would be granted, and seniors would get promoted—were a game that mostly only men played at. Today, however, with more women marrying later or not at all, postponing childbearing or relying on parents to take care of children, work responsibilities take up a larger portion of women’s lives and become their biggest priority. Business banquets, therefore, also become a must.
The view from a woman's perspective
So how do business banquets look from a woman’s perspective? When young, ambitious women begin a job, they enter a work world of paradoxes they must navigate, as there is still an unclear line drawn between old and new systems. They might have spent the last five-to-ten years learning new languages and cultures, preparing academically and passing exams for what they hope will be an empowering career that will bring professional success. Instead, they face a system built on an old men’s rules where achieving professional advancement or business deals are still highly dependent on banqueting with your seniors or business partners, for which their many years of training did not prepared them.
University education does not in fact, prepare you to follow the unwritten rules of business banquets where the most expensive and luxurious gifts are exchanged and consumed, where rivers of the most prestigious alcohol are consumed through obsessive toasting, where women, like men, are pressed to drink everything from red wine to beer and baijiu but are looked down upon if they get drunk. Most women struggle with acquiring the same drinking pace as men without losing control (entering an unconscious state and memory loss for obvious physical reasons) and as a result, have developed coping mechanisms to avoid excessive drinking. Examples include intentional spillages, substituting baijiu with water, and using the “Asian flush” to indicate that more alcohol would cause serious physical harm.
Establishing a new discourse
This, however, does not condemn all Chinese firms to being stuck in an old and rusty system. Many private firms have taken steps to differentiate themselves by shortening banquets, relaxing rituals and rules, pushing for a more meritocratic internal system, and striking business deals in offices rather than in restaurants. Many southeastern Chinese firms have been changing some of the specific traditional characteristics of business banquets, such as by introducing wine and beer, which has a much lower alcohol percentage than baijiu. The city of Wenzhou banned government banquets from serving Maotai, the most premium baijiu and symbol of government banquets in July 2012. In the same year, the Central Military Commission also issued a ban on government luxury banquets and imposed a limit on banquet expenditure in additional provinces.
These are just some initial steps, but they have started a public discourse about the purpose of traditional business banquets. Going back to Du Lala’s Promotions, they will continue to inspire more women to using their own talents to fight their way up in today’s firms. They will increasingly realize that B class men or a B class system does not match them, but will be fighting to turn them into A class.
 Baijiu is a potent rice liquor, usually of 40 to 50 percent abv., which comes in different brands and regional origins. Prices range from a low 10 RMB to 2000 RMB depending on the brand.