Chinese viewers love a high-powered woman. The most recent character to capture the hearts of the nation is Tang Jing, a fiercely ambitious consultant in the TV drama The First Half of My Life. Nothing stops Tang from getting ahead, even if it means competing for clients with her long-time boyfriend. While Tang may be a fictional superwoman, more and more Chinese women are living like her in real life.

Outnumbering men at university

China’s official statistics show that there are more female than male students in Chinese universities and the gap is widening. In a country with more men than women, and many families that still prioritise their boys’ education, it is interesting to see that gender ratio reverse on campus.

Some people argue that China’s education system favours girls. Data show the gender ratio in primary school is balanced, but starts to skew towards girls from high school onwards. Experts say girls develop faster than boys in their peer group; and girls are better at self-discipline. As a result, girls often perform better academically and have a greater chance to go to college.

Moreover, with China opening up in the 1990s, colleges began to increase enrolment and opened new courses that are considered female-friendly, such as international trade, marketing, and foreign languages – offering more opportunities for female students.

Taking part in the labour force

World Bank data showed that China ranked first in the world for female labour force participation in 2010, with a rate of 73%, higher than the labour force participation for men in some developed countries, such as Italy and Greece. “Chinese women crushed the world” ran the headline on Chinese media describing the result. That rate has been declining in recent years but it is still the case that the majority of women in the most populous nation in the world are earning their own living.

Chinese women are also moving fast in finding their jobs in STEM fields. Data show that the number of middle-ranking and senior female technical personnel reached 6.6 million in 2013, or 44% of the total, an increase of nine percentage points from 2000.

With new technology at their fingertips, Chinese women are “holding half of the sky” where it comes to the internet. Government data show that women set up 55% of new internet companies in China and more than a quarter of all entrepreneurs are women. This is a much higher number than in any other country.

Image: Source: World Bank

Spurring online commerce

Across the globe, women take the primary responsibility for family shopping. That power is only amplified with online shopping. In the Singles Day shopping event last year, Alibaba’s platform rang up an eye-popping $17.8 million of sales over 24 hours. So it comes as no surprise that Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, spoke passionately at the 2017 Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship, calling women the “secret sauce” of Alibaba’s success and wishing to become a woman in his next life.

The explosive growth in shopping across China will be further fuelled by the new two-child policy, with the inevitable rise in the mothers and babies category. Here, price is even less of a factor. The market is worth around $4.6 billion and is thought to be growing by 15% each year.

According to China’s Blue Book of Women’s Life 2017, the majority of Chinese female consumers agree to a greener consumption concept. “Their shopping preference become more economic, green, environmental friendly and increasingly driven by the ‘Internet Plus’” strategy, said the research.

Generating wealth

There are 88 self-made female billionaires found across the world, and 56 Chinese businesswomen among them, some two-thirds of the Hurun list, marking China the best place in the world to be a female entrepreneur.

Why is China producing so many successful women in business? Looking at the big picture, it could be partially attributed to the country’s economic boom that this generation has enjoyed over the past three decades.

Culturally, the hard-work ethic is deeply ingrained in Chinese women. This is demonstrated by the industries where most Chinese female billionaires are found: many of them are from telecommunications, technology, manufacturing sectors – industries that connect, create and make – rather than investment or real estate, where male billionaires are often found.

In addition, China’s one-child policy over the past thirty years, coupled with family support, whereby grandmothers help with childcare, are believed to have played a role in enabling women to pursue personal dreams beyond their family responsibilities.

Buying sound boxes and Bitcoins

“Chinese Damas”, or women over 40, have never stopped creating economic miracles. It is these women who set the moribund gold market alight in 2013, by buying 300 tons of gold in 10 days.

In China, it is common that the woman of the family, especially the grandmother, holds the purse strings. They are the valued customers for luxury brands, travel agencies and beauty salons. They are also earnest buyers in the stock market, real estate, and even Bitcoins. Their collective purchasing wins them their fame as the “secret weapon” of China’s economy.

The Damas’ craze for square dancing has swept the nation, overtaking public spaces in the park, basketball courts, shopping malls and TV programmes. This is not just folk dance; Damas dance all styles, from Flamenco, to Rumba, and even Tap dance. And it is big business. According to a conservative estimate, online sales of square dance-related products total more than $3.9 million per month. Innovators have wasted no time in developing high-tech products for the craze, such as the noise-cancelling sound box, and Tinder-like apps for dancers to communicate.

Image: Global Gender Gap Index 2017, World Economic Forum

There is little doubt that Chinese women are growing in stature in many aspects of their lives. But there is still a long way to go. The latest Global Gender Gap Report suggests that it will take at least 100 years to close the worldwide gender gap, and China is ranked 100 out of 144 countries on the index.

Cultural factors remain a formidable hurdle in closing the gap. According to the report, China’s perennial challenge is the sex ratio at birth which ranks the lowest in the world. Data show that boys are still preferred in China, while girls are meant to be “married off”. Even successful women like Tang Jing are not an exception. “A powerful woman is not cute”, “A workaholic woman is not marriage material” and “Woman over 30 should put the priority on family”, were just some of the comments from viewers.

With a country that hopes to boost childbirth to tackle an ageing population, women face an even bumpier road to reach their full potential. To overcome the multiple challenges of equal pay, care for two children, work-life balance, and career-advancing opportunities: it will not be enough for women to simply build stronger self-awareness and keep striving. Equally importantly, their husbands, male colleagues, government and public support from across society, have a greater role to play.

After all, our ultimate goal is not to achieve equality by numbers. Nor do women need to behave like men to be successful. We just need the freedom of choice to live a life on our own terms.