Because they are two of the world's largest emerging economies, it is a common occurrence to make comparisons between India and China, especially where their national development is concerned. Just a few days ago the United Nations released a report estimating that India's population would overtake China's in 2022 - a whole six years earlier than expected. While it will be interesting to see what this prediction results in given the challenges India already faces due to its large population, the India vs. China statistic I am most interested in has strong ties to gender matters. According to the Chinese edition of The Financial Times, at present, China has 400 billionaires, and more than 20 of these people are female, self-made billionaires (most of these lists distinguish between billionaires by inheritance and those who earned their money through entrepreneurship). By comparison, India has approximately 100 billionaires and none of these people are female, self-made billionaires (Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw was on this list last year but her wealth has since decreased to USD$986m as of 2 August 2015).
While the merits of using the number of billionaires in a country as a measuring stick can be debated, the number of women who have been able to ascend to this echelon through years of undoubtedly tireless work does say something meaningful about the society in which she attain this success.
By now most of us working in international development know the adage that a country will be hard-pressed to climb out of poverty and to eliminate inequality if half of its population - the women and girls - are not able to fully enjoy the opportunity to be productive members of society. That China has overtaken India in its number of female, self-made billionaires highlights the fact that women in China do not face as many barriers to labor force participation as their Indian counterparts. Furthermore, Chinese culture in the most broadest of senses is not constructed in a way that systematically and repeatedly limits the potential of the women and girls at every turn (although female infanticide in China is one of the major, problematic exceptions).
China has the most female, self-made billionaires in the world in part because when capitalism was introduced in the country, women like Zhang Xin and Zhou Qunfei were, like their male peers, able to take advantage of opportunities to start businesses that eventually grew into the powerhouses they are today.
In the case of Ms. Zhou, she came from a poor and rural-based household, toiled in a factory for 16+ hours a day for approximately USD$1. Her innovative idea for improving the watch lens manufacturing process led to her revolutionizing how glass screens were produced for mobile phones. And the rest was billion dollar history.
So what does this mean for development? The stories of China's female, self-made billionaires adds to the evidence base that empowering women and girls can have a big impact on a national economy. For governments that wish to work towards some of the success seen in China, here are a few of my recommendations:
- Integrate actionable policies into any existing gender-related national development frameworks. It is one thing to give lip service to promoting gender equality, but it is another to do something concrete about it.
- Examine and understand the roles that Chinese men have played in contributing to greater gender equality in the workforce. The direct and (by her account) well-written resignation letter Ms. Zhou submitted to her male factory boss led to him offering her a promotion. What compelled him to do that and how might we encourage similar, positive behaviors that help create male advocates for women's economic inclusion?
- Provide platforms for female role models to interact with and perhaps even serve as mentors to others. As Michelle Obama once said in reference to U.S. President Barack Obama: "And he believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.” Enabling successful women the opportunity to connect with others like them or to women who wish to achieve their own vision of success but need support and/or guidance is often overlooked as a mechanism to help reverse gender inequality in the workforce. Women supporting women can be a powerful way to give back since it helps to create a space for new opportunities to emerge in which all parties can work to pursue personal and professional success.
It will be interesting to track this situation once we hit 2022. Hopefully by then, India's population has not only swelled but also increased its level of gender equality.