A Dubious Feminism

Hannah Wang

Editor’s note: Between a series of sexual harrassment scandals at multiple companies, and the release of a report showing that female entrepreneurs are more likely to face negative or challenging questions during funding pitches, recent news has made for a pointed reminder that gender equality in the tech and startup world is still wanting.

This problem is hardly limited to the US, however, and anyone interested in the Chinese tech industry would be right to wonder at the conditions that local female entrepreneurs, managers, and developers face. It’s a subject that deserves more than the treatment of a single article, but we hope that the brief commentary below, written by one of reporters while in attendance at Alibaba’s Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship and for a Chinese readership, can offer a snapshot look at some small part of the issues of gender bias and support for women’s equality that exist in China’s industry.

Women entrepreneurs were lined up in front of one of the venue’s walls, taking selfies to post to their WeChat timelines for all their friends to see.

At Alibaba’s 2017 Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship, hundreds of female entrepreneurs had arrived, all seemingly decked out for the occasion in exquisite outfits and flawless makeup. And with ticket prices of 1888 yuan, it had something of a red carpet atmosphere. During an intermission, some milled about in the cavernous Hangzhou expo center and took several flights of stairs down to go outside and smoke.

Near the end of the conference, Jack Ma took the stage to give praise to female entrepreneurs, declaring that “feminine qualities” are, and will be, an advantage to conducting business. But in listening I had to ask: who among the attendees was more “feminine” then? The ones taking selfies, or the ones slipping out for a smoke?

Ma came with evidence prepared: “Big data shows that on Taobao and Alibaba, the things women like to buy are daigou goods [imports shipped by personal shoppers abroad], especially childcare supplies, home furnishings, and goods for vacations and family consumption. Men like more to order food delivery, buy phones, computers, cars, and games. Women think about their families and others, whereas men are thinking about themselves.”

He followed with a series of statements that seemed to elate the audience: “Women think intuitively, and are able to see the essence in complex matters.” Or: “When men want to do something they’re very impulsive, they decide quickly. Women are more hesistant, but once they decide, their patience and their tolerance for mistakes helps them to forge ahead.” Or this: “If men do well in business, and don’t look after their family, they still think themselves amazing. Women in business not only have to look after their business, but also their families. A lot of women who open stores on Taobao have their children with them [as they work].”

Ma’s descriptions were even interlaced with predictions about the future of work under automation and technological change, suggesting that women would soon have the advantage in employment. “Women are more emotive, men more rational, but since machines can do “rational” work far better, I worry that men in the future won’t be able to find jobs,” adding that “altruism and valuing experiences will become mainstream in the next 30 years, and the world of rationalism that puts men in the center will be supplanted.”

Whether it was the “rational” data Ma cited or the “emotive” descriptions he gave, all of this seemed to go down well with the primarily female audience. All of the old stereotypes of women were here somehow reworked into something positive.

The trouble with all this should be obvious. Not all differences (even assuming they are real and not just imagined) amount to intrinsic group characteristics. And where in the past there were those who used the fact that few women received much formal education as its own justification, insisting that women did not have the intellect of men, something similar is at work here: that women entrepreneurs and executives might lean towards certain professions or industries, that female consumers might tend to make certain purchases, does not actually say anything about the nature of women as a group.

The reason that women keep their children by their side while running an online business is simply because someone has to look after them, and traditionally it has just been assumed that that duty should fall to women. If there are still few women programmers, it is only because so many people in their vicinity have discouraged them from pursuing math and science on the belief that women are somehow less suited for work based on hard reasoning.

Sensitive, meticulous, gentle, delicate, emotive, tactful—these are qualities that men can possess just as easily as women. Likewise, being bold, resolute, rational, calm, independent, or proactive are qualities that are just as much “feminine” as they are “masculine.” Yet at the Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship it seems these stereotypes haven’t been truly broken down, just had their values flipped.

Women working in business are not limited to opening online stores and designing jewelry. They may also be exceptional programmers or analysts. And equally, when men are freed from received expectations, they too begin to buy skincare products, fashion accessories, and kitchenware.

We can be glad that Jack Ma has recognized qualities that have previously been undervalued, but we should also hope that more people realize that achieving gender equality starts with breaking past such stereotypes. And we may hope that the next conference will do more than praise women entrepreneurs for where they now stand, and instead look ahead to where they could be—in a more egalitarian startup environment.