More than 20 years ago, when I was applying to college, an interviewer from admissions asked about my future aspirations. I told her that I would like to give back to my country by pursuing a career in politics. She then responded, with a hint of disbelief and skepticism, "A female politician? In China?"
My answer then and now is "yes". But we all need to work harder.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2015, China – despite its top ranking in both the "Professional and technical workers" and "Enrollment in tertiary education" indicators - has a female-to-male ratio of "Legislators, senior officials and managers" of 0.20.
The picture is no less cheerful in the rest of the world, as illustrated by a recent Elle Magazine video, which highlights the glaring gender imbalances in the upper-reaches of politics, media, and other influential spheres.
So how do we advance more women into leadership positions, in China, and elsewhere in the world? I propose three solutions.
Women helping women
I have been fortunate to have the support of strong women throughout my life, especially those who form my personal board of advisors – the Lean In Circles. My circles meet regularly and provide a safe environment for meaningful experience-sharing and mutual encouragement.
One such group that I belong to, called the "Big Girls Club", is convened by Young Global Leader alum Zhang Xin. We are a group of women leaders in Beijing who meet every month to seek inspiration from one another on issues that are closest to our hearts. On a recent occasion, one of the "Big Girls" organized a conversation around China's new domestic violence law, which came into effect on 1 March this year.
The group included a Chinese congresswoman who has championed the anti-domestic violence law, a United States Department of Justice official from the Office on Violence Against Women, and a veteran U.S prosecutor who tackled landmark domestic violence cases for much of her career. What came out of that meeting was a call to action for each of us to combine our resources to help increase awareness about the new law and additional ideas on how to enhance its impact - whether by speaking to the media, or by leading capacity-building efforts for judicial and law enforcement officials.
On a similar note, a key step toward achieving gender balance in leadership is for women in power to advocate for more female representation in all sectors, thereby starting a virtuous cycle of influence.
Men helping women
YGL alum Sheryl Sandberg has advised that the most important career choice for a woman is who she marries. While this may not apply universally, the statement has rung true for me.
I was pregnant with my second child when offered the job to become the inaugural head of Yale Center Beijing. I was excited. However, I was also hesitant to take on this leadership role due to family obligations. My husband strongly encouraged me to "lean in" and accept the offer, and we have found ways to manage our commitments to our family.
For more women to become leaders, then fathers, husbands, brothers and sons need to not only support a woman's role in their families, but also celebrate who she is as an individual.
Women helping themselves
Finally, we need to understand women's goals and identify the resources that can help us to achieve these ambitions and overcome any obstacles along the way.
When I co-founded Lean In Beijing with a group of professional women in 2013, we conducted a survey to help us better serve our community of women and help them advance into leadership positions. Back then, about 80% of the survey's respondents were not aware of any organizations which focused on women's professional development, but they all had a strong desire to join such an organization.
Since then, our Lean In Beijing organization has been helping to fulfill that need, and it has grown into a network of over 80,000 women across China as a result.
At Lean In Beijing, our mission is to help each woman pursue her own definition of success, by understanding her role at home and at work, what motivates her to get ahead, the challenges that she faces, and to identify potential solutions that can help narrow the gender gap in leadership. On International Women's Day 2016, we revised and relaunched the survey and have started distributing it through social media. We will continue to draw on the survey's results to direct our efforts over the coming years.
Working through Lean in Beijing and armed with these three solutions, I hope to accelerate progress in reaching gender parity in China by 2025, the 20th anniversary of the Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.