“You have a boyfriend, right? When are you getting married?” asked my middle-aged manager. “Remember,” he advised, “sooner is always better than later at your age.”
I am twenty-seven. I have a boyfriend, and we’ve been dating for more than two years. We are happy the way things are. Yet this is the kind of comment I hear often. Of the eighty people in my department at work, I am one of the three women over the age of twenty-seven who are not married. I am under constant scrutiny.
In China, where I work for a state-owned bank, I am considered “shengnu,” or “leftover.” A term popularized by state-run media, the idea of the Leftover Woman is simple: no matter how many accomplishments, advanced degrees, or professional and personal accolades a woman acquires, if she is past her midtwenties and still single, she is a failure. In the eyes of mainstream society, we are unwanted—decreasing in value day by day.
On the surface, there are a lot of things about the state of women in China that are ahead of much of the world. Most companies here provide three to six months of paid maternity leave; compared to our neighbors like Japan and South Korea, the proportion of working Chinese women is much larger. And yet, the warnings about becoming “leftover” come from all directions. It often leads young women to prioritize family over career. It leads them to “leave before they leave”—especially at the early stages of their careers.
When I first read Lean In, I couldn’t help but think, Women in China need to hear this! I started talking with a friend, and we decided to form a Lean In Circle to talk about these issues. We are now twelve women in our twenties and thirties—from mainland China, Hong Kong, the United States, and Singapore—who meet twice each month. We work in law, philanthropy, finance, media, and telecommunications. Two of us are married. One of us is taking time off to focus on her young child. Most of us are “leftover.”
It can be hard to apply some of the lessons of Lean In to the Chinese workplace. At my company, for example, there’s no such thing as going to your boss and asking for a raise: salaries are nonnegotiable. The culture in Chinese state-owned companies does not reward taking initiative or risks. Women who are aggressive, outspoken, and “stand out” are marginalized.
So how do women “lean in” in China?
There is no perfect answer, but it’s a question we’re working through as a group as we support one another in achieving our goals. Our team has helped create more Lean In Circles throughout Beijing. We are working to connect with successful female business leaders to provide positive role models. Of course, we are still dating and getting married. We share stories about romance. But we also are working together to understand that our identities and worth should not be determined by our marital status. We have realized that creating a community makes us stronger.
We are not leftover women. We are women leaning in—China style.