Chinese women look to the West

Overseas experience helps new graduates to capitalise on Asia's economic boom

The rise in popularity of Western management education courses among Chinese students is already well documented. However, the recent Asian Geographic Trends Report prepared by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) highlighted the growing popularity of these courses among Chinese women in particular.

The report shows that, since 2007, the number of Chinese citizens sending Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) scores to business schools worldwide has increased by 159 per cent to 126,090. Of those test-takers, 64 per cent were female. "The increase in the number of women taking the GMAT is being driven by East Asian, and more specifically Chinese, women," says Michelle Sparkman Renz, director of research communications at GMAC. "They are entering the business school pipeline at an earlier age and moving through it at a faster pace."

Commentators from the management education sector have a few theories to explain this demand. Dr Qing Wang of Warwick Business School points to a general increase in wealth among the Chinese middle class, improving access to higher education, coupled with the perceived difficulty of securing a place at Chinese institutions. "There's an increased appreciation for the Western system of selecting or admitting students versus the Chinese way which is very rigid and may not take into account the overall quality of an applicant," she says.

There might also be influence from parents, she suggests, who are becoming more focused on helping their daughters get good jobs. "They feel that business is probably easier to get into compared to science or engineering, so there might be a general trend for women to apply to that area rather than other disciplines."

'Easier' in this context is a relative term, as Wang points out that a certain amount of gender inequality still exists. "China is still very male dominated in business. I would say there's more of a problem in China than the UK in terms of how well Chinese women can rise up the ranks."

Sharon Bamford, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, supports this view. "There are fewer women in senior positions in China's corporate world than in Europe," she says, but adds that "many overseas educated or overseas born Chinese women are returning to capitalise on China's economic boom."

For those women, overseas Masters qualifications can help with breaking through into the higher levels of the corporate world, says Sparkman Renz. "Western graduate management qualifications carry a lot of prestige. Masters courses and MBAs are almost considered prerequisites for positions at top-tier firms."

In the case of Chinese women, the focus is on specialised Masters courses rather than general MBAs. The GMAC report shows that, in 2007, Chinese test takers sent 51 per cent of score reports to MBA programmes and 39 per cent to Masters programmes; by 2011 that had switched to 30 per cent and 64 per cent respectively.

It's a shrewd move on the part of students as it mirrors the market, according to Sparkman Renz. "In China there are currently national efforts to develop capacity in the finance and accounting sectors, which opens the door for senior female executives in the industry. Fittingly, these quantitative concentrations are the most popular subjects among Chinese women applicants to business school."

This trend is further borne out at Warwick Business School, where the percentage of Chinese women on specialised Masters courses has jumped from 46 per cent in 2009 to 68 per cent this year. Dr Wang attributes this to young students seeking an extra edge after completing their undergraduate studies, and current Masters student Hui Zhou agrees. "The qualification will boost my CV, and further empower me to take a step toward better working opportunities."

However, simply having a Western management qualification won't automatically single out students in academic terms – courses at Chinese universities outrank many UK institutions. "Overseas study gives students confidence in speaking English, and is more likely to add a global perspective and develop innovative, inquisitive and reflective managers." suggests Nigel Banister, chief global officer of Manchester Business School.

Banister adds that there will be opportunities for female Chinese business postgraduates returning to China. "Multinational companies have continued to set up operations there, and many of them look for Chinese executives who know the country and have a global perspective."

There are also potential roles in expanding Chinese companies. Sparkman Renz points out that GMAC's recent survey of corporate recruiters shows "Asian companies are eager to place new business school graduates in positions in Canada, the US and Europe to help them meet expansion goals and grow their customer bases."

Of course there are no absolutes in China's ever-evolving business landscape but Wang is confident the young women enrolling on her classes are making a wise investment.

Zhou hopes so. "In general men tend to be offered more opportunities than women in most upper levels of business," she says, but she believes that this is changing. "The significant roles that women play in corporations are much more valued than before. Management qualifications are definitely helping."