Press release

Less than a fifth of China’s executives are female compared to 25% in leading countries

Less than a fifth of China’s executives are female compared to 25% in leading countries

Companies in China must create an equitable environment for both women and men to become executives

  • March 08, 2023
  • min read

Press release

Less than a fifth of China’s executives are female compared to 25% in leading countries

SHANGHAI—Mar 8, 2023—Women account for only 19% of executives in China, compared to an average of 25% in leading countries, according to a new joint report China Needs More Women in Executive Leadership by Bain & Company and Spencer Stuart.

Despite having similar workforce participation and greater growth of access to higher education, fewer Chinese women become executives compared to other countries. Chinese women reach mid-level management at similar rates as women in countries that lead in gender parity – these include the US, UK and Australia. However, at the executive level only 19% are female compared to an average of 25% in leading countries.

The business benefits of gender diversity in executive teams are well-documented. Having more women on executive teams improves financial performance including profit and cash flow performance, shareholder returns, and credit ratings. S&P 500 and FTSE 350 firms with female CEOs and/ or gender balanced leadership teams also had a lower probability of default before the Covid-19 pandemic and fared better during the downturn, according to Credit Benchmark.

“Women’s representation in executive teams is not a question of being ‘fair’. It is an important lever for value creation. When women do not rise to their full potential, neither do their companies,” said Chen Shen, a Shanghai-based partner at Bain & Company.

Chinese female executives surveyed by Bain & Company and global leadership advisory firm Spencer Stuart highlighted five key drivers - proactively seeking challenging opportunities to improve capability, comprehensive exposure across functions and roles, achieving extraordinary results, getting sponsorship from senior executives, and expressing opinions confidently to drive key decisions – and two must-haves - setting and planning for executive role as career ambition and getting sufficient work-life support - that contributed to their success, and are aligned with the observation in the executive search market. These elements helped Chinese female leaders perform to their potential, earn recognition and sponsorship, and be fully devoted to their careers.

“As China is still a developing market, we often hear from employers that they are seeking executive candidates who are fully committed to their careers, who proactively seize opportunities to break into white space and are skilled at navigating complex stakeholder networks,” said Christina Zhu, co-head of Spencer Stuart’s Greater China region.

Based on Bain’s interviews and survey, four challenges derail women’s career progression.

  1. Family responsibilities weigh on women more than men 

About 83% of the women surveyed said family duties prevent them from being fully dedicated to work. Sixty-eight percent of women said their families do not understand their career ambitions. Women need more support from their employers too. More than 70% of respondents said a lack of parental support at work prevents them from advancing in their careers.

  1. Women hesitate to speak up and take opportunities

Respondents said Chinese women spend more time on major decisions or wait to express their opinions, which can be perceived negatively. More than 80% of respondents said being risk-averse or waiting to be well-prepared before speaking is a barrier to their advancement.

Women also find it harder to pursue challenging assignments that widen their skillsets. Nearly 60% of women said they hesitate to reach out to senior leaders for opportunities out of fear of making mistakes.

  1. Women feel excluded from male-dominated networks

 Since most leadership circles are composed of men, networking opportunities and social norms are male-dominated and harder for women to break into. Being excluded from social events can shorten women’s careers as it prevents them from gaining sponsorship. In the survey, about 80% of women said the lack of access to executive networks makes it harder to get senior sponsors. More than half said it was more difficult to build high-level connections across the business.

  1. Women are unconsciously biased by an ‘average’ view

Women also face unconscious biases, namely that all women are ‘average’ and perform the same. In contrast, men are usually recognized by their individual capabilities and characteristics.

According to Bain’s research, women in the workplace are perceived to be less committed, less confident, and less ambitious. As a result of bias, nearly half of respondents believe they receive fewer challenging tasks and opportunities to develop at the workplace.

If a man and a woman deliver the same results, women believe the company would favor men. Forty-seven percent said bias about women ‘being average’ makes it harder for them to receive due recognition. The ‘average’ bias also limits women’s career potential. Women stop being promoted to CFO and CEO positions at around age 50, and leadership is turned mostly over to men.

Companies in China need to create an equitable environment for women and men. First, they should ensure leadership commitment. With top-down support, companies can create gender targets for the organization including identifying high potential women and building a career progression plan with them. Second, companies should work to remove unconscious biases and ensure both genders are treated fairly at work, including during selections and performance reviews. Then, they could build more equitable support systems such as flexible working options with leaders setting the example, as well as encouraging more men to take parental leave. Finally, companies should establish more female-focused networking opportunities.

Editor's Note: For more information or interview requests please contact: Ann Lee, Bain & Company, tel. +65 6228 2960, email:

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