Andrew Atkinson

Alibaba Looks to Push the Business World into the “She Era”

2017/07/17 Andrew Atkinson
“The arc of history is long and it bends towards justice” – yet sometimes it needs a little push to get there. Invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim framed the outlook from Monday’s She Era 2017 Conference hosted by Alibaba in Hangzhou.

The day pulsed with positivity as noteworthy speakers spurred on the largely female crowd with news of programmes to fund female-owned businesses, assurances of change in the business environment and interactions with female icons. High achievers filled the speaking line-up; Vera Wang and Miroslava Duma from the fashion world, political figures Bardish Chagger and Lakshmi Puri, and actress Sun Li – a surprise guest.

A Woman’s Worth
By no means a problem specific to the Mainland, gender equality in China’s business world is far from realized. Whereas Maoist sentiment denotes that “women hold up half the sky”, they only hold 9.2% of board positions. This places China firmly behind the global average of 14.7% and far behind leader Norway who can claim a 46.7% presence. The Norwegian ratio is much closer to Jack Ma’s vision and Alibaba’s current staff gender ratio was keenly promulgated; women held more than 50% of Alibaba’s staff positions until some months ago when pesky acquisitions of male-dominated companies dragged it down several percentage points.

Vera Wang speaking at Alibaba 2017 Women Conference
Cultural factors persist in limiting the ascension of Chinese women up the business ladder. We are only several months removed from the founder of a Beijing venture capital firm stating females as CEOs or board members as one of his 10 ‘no-investment principles’ – attaching the loathsome rhetoric, “Just think about it carefully, what else do women do better than men other than giving birth?” Social pressures for women to get married early and a focus on motherhood are seen as contributing to an ‘unfocused’ attitude, and a limit in acquiring ‘guanxi’ – a key failing in a world where networking is vital.

A Leader in the Home, if not in the Workplace
Whereas their plight in the business world is the issue at hand, women in China hold influence in other ways. They account for 41% of China’s GDP – a ratio outweighing any other region, according to McKinsey. When China entered the world stage in 1979, women contributed to just 20% of household income; by 2013, that number had reached 50%. The role a mother plays in household decisions is particularly strong in the Mainland. China’s mothers number roughly 320 million. Not only are they vast, but they are wealthier. The last decade has seen the average age Chinese mothers give birth grow from 24 to 27, and it continues to climb. A 2010 Mastercard survey found that 75% of mothers controlled the family budget. Maybe that is why women make up 22% of China’s CFO positions – a world-leading ratio, and one that stands head and shoulders above its other gender equality statistics.

A Stubborn Path Ahead
If gender equality in the workplace is achieved by 2025, there will be another $12 trillion added to world GDP. The barriers to achieve this are immense however, both culturally and regulatory. A strong Canadian perspective was brought to the event with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau adding his thoughts through video, and Bardish Chagger speaking with passion. Because of the unaffordability of childcare, 25% of Canadian women are forced to give up fulltime work. Women earn 70% of a man’s wage and thus hold a lower bargaining power, squeezing participation rates. 155 countries still hold laws limiting female economic ability in some fashion.

The World Bank Group Fund will address some of these factors, but will also look to further social norms. Kim spoke of a fascinating programme run in Togo to see if personal initiative trainings (concepts like self-starting and persistence) would boost female success – it did. The 40% bump in profits for women-owned business far-eclipsed the efforts of traditional courses. These programmes are now being rolled out to other areas with similarly reserved roles for women in business.

Brother Jack, Champion of Womanhood
If you get the chance to see Jack Ma speak in China, I would urge you to do so. His arrival on stage was met with a reverence that transcended that of a famous celebrity – familiar, but at the end of the day very much removed from our lives. So it was little wonder that come question time, audience members prefaced their queries with a respectful “马哥哥” – ‘Brother Jack’.

What undoubtedly set the mood for his speech was his statement that in his next life he hopes he “can be born a woman, so he can build two successful companies, and not just one.” Whereas earlier speeches leaned towards ideas, numbers, funds and future plans, Jack Ma finished proceedings with a bit of flair. He knew his audience, and his repeated acknowledgement of how the world would be a much better place if women were running things was received with rapture.

But if Credit Suisse’s 2016 report is to be believed – he may have a point. Between 2013 and 2016, when 25% of management roles were filled by women, companies averaged 2.8% growth, with 33% – a 4.8% growth, and when more than 50% of managers were female – a 10.3% growth.

Once his presentation transitioned to Q&A the focus shifted somewhat. Questions around gender equality and Alibaba’s role subsided in favour of overawed audience members requesting advice on anything from business to their personal lives. Mr Ma spent the last 20 minutes speaking on leading a spiritually-rich life and admonishing a woman’s husband for spending too much time drinking with his business partners.

This biennial conference ended with much hope for a more balanced future. Alibaba ventures forth teamed-up with like-minded establishments such as the World Bank Group to provide the backbone in overcoming a glaring failing of most all societies worldwide. The example will be set, and its progress come 2019’s She Era conference will take its measure.


Read More