Workplace gender equality in Asia: Is China ahead?

White-collars walk to their lunch break in Pudong business district in Shanghai, China.
Lucas Schifres | Getty Images
White-collars walk to their lunch break in Pudong business district in Shanghai, China.

In Asia, women working in China are most likely to share an equal footing with men, according to a gender diversity study by non-profit organization Community Business.

The world's second largest economy outperformed in the survey of 32 multinational firms across China, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Japan and Malaysia.

In terms of female representation in the workforce, China topped the charts at the junior and senior levels, but lost out marginally to Malaysia in the middle levels and total workforce rankings. Female workforce participation rose across the board in the mainland; the number of women holding senior positions jumped the most – to 35.6 percent from 20.7 percent in 2011 when the study was last conducted.

Community Business

The findings tally with a World Economic Forum report released this week that said China improved in gender equality and has the second highest percentage of firms with female participation in ownership across Asia.

"China's economic growth creates greater opportunities for women," said Fern Ngai, CEO of Community Business. "In addition, the one-child policy means that daughters, as the only child, have access to the best education and are expected to pursue a career."

While 93 percent of firms embrace flexible work arrangements for female staff, Beijing takes others steps to encourage women to stay in the workforce.

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For instance, China is the only one of the six markets surveyed where maternity benefits are provided by both the government and employers.

"Maternity benefits in other markets are either paid by the government or employers. This shows that the Chinese government doesn't only require the employers to do so by law, they also lead by example," Community Business' Ngai told CNBC.

China is also the first among the six countries to roll out statutory paid paternity leave, he added. Chinese working mothers are entitled to 98 days of maternity leave, compared with 80 days in Singapore, 70 days in Japan, 60 days in Malaysia and India, and 50 days in Hong Kong.

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The banking and finance industry in particular is taking long strides to ensure a women-friendly work environment, George McFerran, sales and marketing director at eFinancialCareers, told CNBC in an email.

"Banks are listening to women and actioning initiatives that are wanted. Flexible working hours, childcare benefits and mentoring programs are among the most popular," said McFerran. "These are proven ways to improve the gender balance and also help attract top female talent."

35-year-old Shanghainese Huang Yue-er who has a two-year-old son, enjoys flexibility in her work day at a mainland banking software firm: "I get shorter work weeks sometimes when my child falls sick or there are school events that I have to attend," she said. "My boss understands and I don't feel penalized for rushing off to take care of my child."

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Areas that need improvement

To be sure, there are areas where China can improve. Cultural values tend to keep women from becoming too successful in the workplace.

"I feel that in China, people now accept the notion that women can 'hold up half of the sky' (a Chinese proverb referring to the ability of women to contribute equally) since we have university degrees and are economically-independent," 29-year-old Elyon Song who works as a marketing senior executive in Guangzhou told CNBC.

"But when I go home, I still get asked by my parents and relatives about when I'm going to stop working and find a boy to settle down," she said. "Luckily, they are not my bosses."