Reflections on Why More Women Don’t Get to the C-Suite: A View from China – why HBR shouldn’t have retracted

This morning HBR retracted a story on why women in China don’t rise up to the CXO level.

In consultation with the author, we have decided to remove the text of this article from We did not properly convey the cultural context of the author’s observations. We, the editors, take responsibility for this and apologize to the author and our audience.

I dug into the wayback machine, and got the original text. It was an interesting article, and not particularly culture specific. It was more about gender roles, and gender assumption than Chinese gender roles. The piece struck me as applicable to the stereotypes that we see elsewhere in the world.

source : here

What did the article say?

The reasons why there weren’t women in the C-Suite were:

a) Insufficient Ambition:

“Women tend to have more non-work-related life goals than men do, meaning that a smaller proportion of their goals are related to professional advancement.”.

Reflections on Why More Women Don’t Get to the C-Suite: A View from China

My first thought i when i read this was, yeah — they have to look after children, deal with the kitchen, and bring up husband. Sure, they have other non-work-related life goals than men. or rather, the reason why men have fewer non-work related life goals is because the women in their lives are running after, and running this goal.

b) Excessive Perfectionism

“In pursuit of excellence, women can sometimes get caught up in their own self-imposed high standards. If you are unwilling to accept imperfection, you can end up wasting time and resources, sometimes even losing sight of customer requirements and forgetting your actual goals. “

Reflections on Why More Women Don’t Get to the C-Suite: A View from China

Is it that we are like this, or is it like we are expected to live up to a higher standard of performance than our male counterparts. I have often wondered about that. The way that most organisations deal with men and women is neither equal nor equitable. It starts at recruitment and goes on to the path up the career ladder.

c) Conflict Avoidance – This is mostly true, and it is not really a bad thing. In years to come we are going to see this as an advantage rather than a drawback. This is the core quality that is going to guide organisations and nations out of this troubled era. It is less about women, and more about organisations that prefer conflict to collaboration and co-operation.

All too often, female managers are unwilling to face conflict — they would rather coordinate and cooperate, offering service and support, than get involved in unpleasant interpersonal situations.

Reflections on Why More Women Don’t Get to the C-Suite: A View from China

d) Taking on Emotional Labor

Psychological strength and emotional stability are extremely important in the role of CEO. But many women struggle with self-confidence, and they often have to deal with stresses not just from work, but also from domestic responsibilities, making it even harder to maintain the psychological fortitude necessary for good leadership. According to a recent study, women spend nine more hours a week on housework and child care than men do. In China, research examining the impact of 2016’s two-child policy on the mental health of working women suggests that it is becoming increasingly difficult to balance professional responsibilities with raising a family. 

Reflections on Why More Women Don’t Get to the C-Suite: A View from China

This isn’t untrue. Systems and organizations have to be built around the fact that women bear babies, and women also are the primary caregivers in a family. We may rail at these gender roles, and claim they are archaic and patriarchal. We may all want them to be smashed to make way for a more egalitarian world. But, the fact remains that they exist. And, organizations have to understand that they don’t hire people with identical backgrounds and drivers. This will not just help organizations recruit and groom more women for the top roles, but also become overall more diverse.

Is any of this objectionable?

Any working woman has heard all these excuses. Even if she has started up and built the company. Most of us have developed a layer of indifference to such views. But, none of is untrue. We may not be this, but we are expected to be this. I have heard it being said to women working late hours “don’t you have a husband and child to feed”. I have never heard this being said of men.

The only thing that can be seen as eye-brow raising politically incorrect is this:

Male leaders and female leaders alike are charged with the responsibility and the mission of developing the business. If leadership is considered a masculine trait, then female leaders may be deemed “mannish” — so be it. When female managers take on leadership responsibilities, they should forget that they are “women,” they should not attribute the challenges they face to gender issues, and they should instead focus all their attention on their work.

Reflections on Why More Women Don’t Get to the C-Suite: A View from China

But, i am putting this down to a culture specific context. The generation of women managers before me was expected to be ‘non-men’. But, by the time i got there, it was not a requirement. But, i am specifically talking about the Indian media sector in the early 2000’s. Other industries and sectors may be different. And, i am guessing that this is a worldwide phenomenon. Not specific to China or India

The Problem

There is a world we live in that is structured in a particular way. It has innate inequalities, biases, and discrimination. Articles like this bring those issues to the fore, and help address them.

You may withdraw the article, but the problem of lack of women in the C-suite does not go away. And, whether you look at China, or India, or the USA, or Europe the fact remains that after almost 5 decades of women in the workforce, there aren’t enough women in senior positions. But, this is not just a corporate phenomenon

Women hold 1 to 3% of top executive jobs in the largest corporations worldwide. For women who also experience race discrimination, the percentage is even less.
a) Only 8 countries have a woman head of state; 21 countries have a deputy head.
b) Only 13.4% of the world’s Parliamentarians are women.
c) Only 1% of trade union leaders are women, though women are almost 40% of their membership globally.

Women In The World Of Corporate Business: Looking At The Glass Ceiling

The problem is not the last stage of the career, but at the entry level itself. A McKinsey report on Women in the Workplace looks at the problem (in terms of data) in the USA

Women in the Workplace 2019

A study from earlier this year, in the Catalyst looks at the worldwide trend for the top companies

Women in S&P 500 companies. Catalyst

In India about 50% of women drop out of the corporate ladder between entry level and mid management. And, this is a figure that is mainly responsible for the low numbers that reach the top. This is where the problem lies.

Was HBR right in retracting the article?

Just because we wish a problem doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean it doesn’t. There is a problem with the lack of diversity in the workplace, especially at senior levels. This is not just about the representation of women – thought that is the most obviously visible one.
Outrage on these statements, while valid, do not take away from the fact that they exist. We can’t wish away perceptions, but work at changing them.

The author of the piece, Chen Chenhua, a woman CEO in her own right, has looked at the issue from a China lens, but she could be talking about the corporate ladder anywhere. She writes in the piece

For a woman to become an excellent CEO, she must have a supportive external environment, but she must also forge her own inner strength. Be proactive, dream big, and take whatever path you choose. If you don’t limit yourself, you will be poised to flourish.

Reflections on Why More Women Don’t Get to the C-Suite: A View from China

The one issue with the piece can be a turn of phrase – instead of saying these are the reasons why women don’t become C-suite leaders, it could have said this is the perception that women have to combat in their rise to the top. But, I put that down to editing, rather than bias.

A more interesting response would have been a counter to the piece that talks about how women have to run the marathon to the top, like a sprint, carrying the family, children, household chores, gender expectations, and caregiving – along with workload – on her way to the top.

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