Jobs and the Future of Work

Lessons on female empowerment from China

Virginia Tan
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“Conquer yourself and you can conquer the world”. This is one of my favourite quotes from a book written about Aung Sung Su Kyi, the famous Burmese leader. I used to think that success was defined by what you did in life, but after I read the book, I realised, that success really is based on the person that you are. Aung Sung Su Kyi’s courage, tenacity and strength enabled her to overcome some of the greatest challenges in her political struggle in Burma over the last 20 years.

Lean In Beijing was started by a group of young professional women in May 2013, and was the first Lean In organisation in China. As a platform which serves to empower professional and college women in China to pursue their goals and aspirations, Lean In Beijing actively builds communities for women across China, promoting a culture of mentorship, leadership and mutual support. We wanted to share some of the lessons that we have learnt from our work in China over the last two years, on the importance of helping Chinese women overcome the barriers from within, and what we have realised about the unique challenges that women face in China.

The link between professional and personal development

People often assume that professional development refers to the acquisition of specific skills or gaining more work experience in a certain industry over time. We have realised that professional development is intrinsically linked to personal development. At the launch of our mentorship programme for college women in May 2014, we had a session called “Knowing Your Strengths”, where 13 mentors from different industries mentored approximately 100 students, discussing whether they knew their strengths, and how to develop and utilise these strengths in the workplace.

Have you ever asked yourself what your natural strengths are? We have found that women in China, both young and old, have often never asked themselves this fundamental question. In the session, we watched a video from during that mentorship session, whereby strengths were not things that you were good at, but things that “strengthened” you, made you feel effective and valued.

Overcoming internal barriers

We think the idea of the empowerment of women is often associated with the removal of external barriers, such as changing social attitudes and laws and fighting discrimination. While this is important, we have noticed that the overcoming of internal barriers by women is often the most transformative. The first step in changing the way society perceives you is by changing your perception of yourself. We have noticed, time and time again, women with talent, skills and potential constantly doubting and putting themselves down, lacking confidence in taking up leadership positions, afraid that they are not good enough. This invisible fear and self-doubt holds women back in a very significant way. We must stop holding ourselves back.

Lean In Beijing believes in helping women to fight these internal barriers. When you start to believe in yourself, creating reserves of internal strength, it will be much harder for any external barriers and societal attitudes to hold you back.

Confidence is not automatic

There is a belief that confidence is a gift, some people have it naturally and some people do not, and we often get approached by women asking us how they can increase their confidence. The good news is that confidence can be learnt. It comes from the realisation that you are capable, you are able to deliver, and that you are able to lead. It comes from hard work, struggle and experience. It is not free or automatic.

Confidence is also contagious. Once you have spoken up once, you realise that you have the desire to speak up again. Once you have led a project or team successfully once, you realise that you can do it again, and the next time, possibly on a larger scale. We have seen the women who have joined Lean In Beijing embark on this path of growth, time and time again.

Everyone wants to join but no one wants to lead

When we first started Lean In Beijing, our first goal was to incubate as many Lean In circles (a circle is a group of 6-8 women who met frequently). However we started to notice that many women wanted to join a circle, but most women were unwilling to lead. We did not understand why at first, but it seemed like many women did not want the burden or responsibility of leading, or felt that they were incapable of leading. We do not believe in forcing but encouraging others to lead, but convincing others to take initiative – to volunteer to be a leader in the first place – has been difficult at times.

We need to question what our assumed definition of leadership is. The idea of a leader is someone who manages all others, who makes all decisions, who has all authority but also the burden of responsibility. We need to adjust that definition. In the context of a circle, there is no one leader. Everyone gets a chance to lead, but in the safety of a trusted environment. There are also many ways to lead, for example, supporting someone else, listening and giving advice.

We at Lean In Beijing believe that the modern leader is one who leads by way of service to others.

Learning by doing

Here at Lean In Beijing, we believe in learning by doing, practising leadership through action. We do not think that one gains confidence and leadership abilities through going through a course or reading a book, but by taking the lead in organising an event or starting a project. Lean In Beijing launched its intercollegiate platform, Lean In College, in October 2013, which now has 20 college chapters across China. Lean In College has worked with many college women in China, encouraging them to form circles or chapters on campus. We have watched how some of these college women, initially timid and unsure of themselves, transform themselves into leaders after a process of a few months, with the confidence to speak in front of a large crowd of people on campus or organising large scale events on campus to benefit their peers way beyond what we could have imagined.

Our advice to women in China: You have nothing to lose by trying and doing. So why not start today?

The power of “together”

The idea of the Lean In circle was to harness the power of women being together and to inspire them each to achieve their goals and aspirations. Lean In Beijing started out as a circle of women, and a year after its formation, every single person in that circle had quit their jobs, either changing industries, countries, taking up more senior leadership positions or applying to business schools. In some of our circle meetings, we discussed topics such as how to change industries, how to negotiate, time management, and often one person’s advice and experience was very useful in helping another person resolve their particular issue or gave them ideas that they never thought about. Everyone had something to contribute.

The reason why we at Lean In Beijing feel so strongly about building communities for women across China is because this allows women to be connected to others facing similar challenges and issues, enabling them to mutually support each other. This removes the isolation felt by many women in their usual communities, and being a part of a supportive group or community, we have realised, is an effective way to help women overcome the internal barriers that we mentioned earlier.

There are currently more than 10 Lean In city hubs in China. However what we have noticed is that small professional circles do not naturally form. Instead, women tend to gather around one cohesive and successful circle and form a loose community around it like a communal chapter. This has happened in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and many of the other city hubs that have formed across China. City hubs then engage with their local community through sharing content online through the use of social media tools (such as having an official channel on popular social networking app Wechat ) and hosting regular activities and events offline which are open to the public, as opposed to being solely an internal facing circle.

Strategic partnerships

Lean In Beijing also believes in working with other hubs across China as well as other strategic partners on our common goals and to maximise outreach and impact. In January 2015, we launched in partnership with the World Academy for the Future of Women, a UN accredited educational institute based in Zhengzhou, Henan, a long-term mentorship programme for women from less privileged backgrounds.

We also partnered with UN Women in April 2015 to launch the HeforShe campaign across China through using our multiple professional and college social media platforms. We at Lean In Beijing believe that in collaboration there lies synergies. Together, we are better and stronger.

The role of mentorship 

Many of us at Lean In Beijing have benefitted from mentorship in the workplace. Often a mentor can see potential in you that you cannot see yourself. Through our work with Lean In College, we realised that there was a huge need from college women for practical advice about the workplace from experienced professionals. Given that there is no formal mentorship culture in China, we wanted to see if the idea of mentorship events would work in practice. We held three mentorship events in 2014, giving women professionals a platform to share their experiences and college women an opportunity to ask questions and discuss issues.

We also decided that we should focus our events on industries where women were under-represented. In December 2014, we launched our first industry specific mentorship event to encourage women to enter the technology industry, partnering with two notable Chinese technology companies.

We think that the definition of mentorship should also be reassessed – as often we have found that some of the most helpful pieces of advice and support come from our peers or others who are perhaps just a little older than us, and not necessarily from professionals at the top of their industries. The traditional idea of a mentor is someone who supports and guides you throughout your career, however in our view a mentor is someone who provides advice and support (even on an ad hoc basis or on a particular issue), and from whom we can learn from. We at Lean In Beijing encourage women to seek “mentors” around them, and not to be afraid of seeking advice and support from peers or other people who may only be temporary fixtures passing through their lives. If you don’t ask, you will never get.

The inclusion of men

Our woman in technology mentorship event in December 2014 was also our first event where we invited male mentors from the technology industry, who were incredibly enthusiastic. We believe that women can benefit from learning about success and leadership in the workplace from both men and women, and the feedback from our participants was that they felt the male perspective was very valuable and enhanced their experience.

Going forwards, we at Lean In Beijing hope to include in our events and in the dialogue on women in China, more male perspectives and participation. We think that this will be a crucial component in helping women to succeed in the workplace, as well as on a personal level.

Ironically, in many ways, we feel like we at Lean In Beijing have been the greatest beneficiaries. We wanted to share this realization – that sometimes by empowering others, you really are empowering yourself.

This article was adapted from a speech given by Lean In Beijing at General Electric in March 2015 to mark International Women’s Day.

Author: Virginia Tan, solicitor, Ashurst LLP, and a Global Shaper at Beijing Hub.

Image: A woman walks under blossoming cherry trees at Jing An Park in downtown Shanghai March 21, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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Jobs and the Future of WorkLeadershipGeographies in DepthEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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