BEIJING » Fresh out of college, Angela Li was proud of her job as a teller at the state-owned China Everbright Bank — maybe it wasn’t exciting, but it had prospects. After a year and a half she applied for a promotion, along with a male colleague who had joined with her.
He got it. She did not.
"Our boss came to talk to me afterwards," said Li, a 25-year-old with scraped-back hair and a quiet gaze. "He said, ‘It’s good that you girls take your work seriously. But you should be focusing on finding a boyfriend, getting married, having a kid.’ "
"I could compete in terms of ability, but not in terms of gender," she said.
China is often held up as a model for women in Asia. Women made great strides in the early decades of communist rule, and the government has taken pains to portray women as equal to men, starting with Chairman Mao’s declaration that women "hold up half the sky."
More recently, as China has shifted to a market economy, admiring reports of "wonder women," often promulgated by state media, suggest that Chinese women have made it in business.
But the economic boom that has created opportunities for women has also fostered a resurgence of long-repressed traditional values. More and more men and women say a woman’s place is in the home, wealthy men take mistresses in a contemporary reprise of the concubine system, and pressure for women to marry young is intense. In the office, socialist-era egalitarianism has been replaced by open sexism, in some cases reinforced by the law.
"The media has been publicizing individual cases of successful women, but overall there isn’t space for women to develop in the economic realm," said Feng Yuan, a prominent Chinese feminist. "Women’s status has not improved, and in some areas has regressed."
Chinese women are losing ground in the work force compared with men, their representation falling steadily with each rung up the professional ladder. Women make up 44.7 percent of the work force, but just 25.1 percent of people with positions of "responsibility," according to China’s 2010 census.
At the very top, their share falls still further.
According to corporate records examined by The New York Times, fewer than 1 in 10 board members of China’s top 300 companies are women. That measure, significantly smaller than the proportion of women on corporate boards in the United States and much of Europe, is based on a review of the boards of directors of every company in the CSI 300 index — China’s equivalent to the S&P 500, which includes a wide swath of the economy from mining to pharmaceuticals.
Among the CSI 300 companies, 126 have no women on their boards, according to their 2013 annual reports, the latest available.
"We call it the ‘sticky floor,’" Feng said. "There is a glass ceiling here too, but most women never even get off the sticky floor."
By comparison, women hold 19.2 percent of the directorships on S&P 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit group that seeks to promote women in business. In Europe, about 18 percent of board members in the Continent’s 610 biggest companies are women, according to the European Commission.
While the advantages of having women in the boardroom are broadly accepted in global business circles, in China the idea meets with incomprehension, even boredom, among business leaders.
Women as directors was "a noble question," said Jiang Zhinan, a spokesman for the state-owned Aluminum Corp. of China, but one that his company had not considered. The company has no women on its eight-member board.
Dongfang Electric, one of the world’s biggest makers of electric power turbines, also has no women on its nine-member board.
"We’ve never thought about it," said Zhang Linchao, the director of the company’s general offices. Asked if the company would answer questions on the subject, he declined. "It’s irrelevant," he said.
The pattern is especially pronounced at state-owned companies, where the government could simply order higher female participation if it wanted. Of the 31 companies on the CSI 300 that have no women as senior executives, 30 are majority state-owned.
That figure dovetails with extremely low numbers of women in the highest echelons of the Chinese government.
No woman has ever served in the body that is the apex of power in China: the Politburo Standing Committee, which currently has seven members. In the wider Politburo, only two of 25 members are women, and few women have ever held any of 62 top spots in provincial governments, the proving ground for future top leaders.
The Communist Party’s official women’s organization, the All-China Women’s Federation, is charged with representing Chinese women and protecting their rights and interests. In reality, it focuses on maintaining party control and traditional values more than promoting women. Until recently, it posted editorials on its website belittling women who chose to delay marriage. It is also one of the key party organs carrying out the country’s family planning policy, enforcement of which has led to forced abortions.
The federation declined repeated requests for comment.
Nor do the few women in the top echelons of business do much to promote their cohorts, several businesswomen said.
Dong Mingzhu, president of Gree Electric, an air conditioner manufacturer with sales of $22.5 billion last year, blames women for their poor showing in the workplace.
"Women don’t try hard enough," she said in an interview at the company’s headquarters in Zhuhai, in southern China. "They are too happy to go off and find a man to rely on."
Indeed, powerful cultural assumptions that women should marry young and focus on the family after a child is born account for some of the disparity. According to a survey released in 2011 by the All-China Women’s Federation, an increasing percentage of women, more than half, believe a woman should focus on the home.
Women in the boardroom was not even a question.
"This issue is of interest only to a minority of females," said Oliver M. Rui, a professor of finance and accounting at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, "and they’re not taken seriously in China."
Others say traditional attitudes are just part of the problem.
"The real problem is far bigger than any individual and has to do with things like the law and resource allocation," said Lu Xiaoquan, a gender-rights lawyer at Beijing Zhongze Law Firm.
China’s constitution says that women should enjoy the same rights as men, and labor law bans gender discrimination, but those laws are vague and nearly unenforceable, Lu says.
"Chinese law doesn’t define gender discrimination, so how do you even argue a case?" he asked. "It’s very, very difficult to get one into court."
Companies need not bother with subtlety in job advertisements. A maker of security cameras seeks sales managers: No women need apply. A company that sells box cutters is looking for a human resources manager: male, age 25 to 35.
In some cases, the law itself buttresses discrimination. Legally, women must retire earlier than men — generally age 60 for men and 50 or 55 for women — as they are expected to care for the young, the sick and the elderly.
One Chinese company that does have women on its board, Haier, a manufacturer of home appliances, says the diversity makes business sense.
"Females act quite differently, bringing diversity and ideological pluralism," Ming Guozhen, a deputy general manager, wrote in a faxed reply to questions. "To some degree, this contributes to more reasonable decisions and reducing risk."
Haier’s two women directors may also be more attuned to the company’s customers.
"Women are the biggest consumers and are in charge of finance in the home, so they can express consumers’ opinions better," Ming said.
Some companies not listed on the CSI 300, including the Internet giants Baidu and Alibaba, also have more women in top positions.
Those women often find themselves on a lonely frontier.
Fu Xin, 32, an architect who designs car dealerships for a German company, says she rarely meets women at her level.
"It’s all men," she said. "When clients come up to me at the airport or the dealership they often look past me for the boss."
But the attitudes of the successful women she has encountered are not always much different from those of their male counterparts.
On a recent trip to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, a rare female client, the head of a new dealership, took her under her wing.
"She said, ‘You should do the most important thing in your life now,’" Fu said. "Find a husband."
Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Michael Forsythe, New York Times