• 4 minute read

The Definition of a Female Leader

What does it take to be a female leader?

By Fang Ying, China Business Knowledge @ CUHK

Zheng Xianling is the General Manager of China International Marine Containers Industrial Fund. China International Marine Containers (CIMC) is the world’s largest manufacturer of shipping containers.

Prior to CIMC, Zheng Xianling has held top positions in several industries. She started her career as an engineer for an automotive components manufacturer in 1987, and has worked as the regional general manager for two leading Taiwanese wallpaper companies.

After obtaining her PhD degree in Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2001, Zheng shifted her career to the investment banking sector and has had over 10 years’ experience in this field. Reporting to the President of CIMC, she is now the head of Industrial Fund–the investment arm–of CIMC, a subsidiary of CIMC Group.

In the following interview, Zheng shares with China Business Knowledge @ CUHK about her career, women in leadership and some of the traits of women in a leadership role.

What skills or personalities do women need to rise to the top?

Zheng: I would not have been a successful leader if I had not believed in what I was doing. In other words, you need to do it wholeheartedly and engage completely in the mission you set for yourself. So you have to feel passionate about the things you are doing. That’s a precondition to being a successful leader.

Secondly, honesty is a key to success. People prefer an honest person. Honesty breeds trust, which obviously can help to achieve a successful business.

Thirdly, you should care about your employees. You should care about them making an effort, being part of the team, and drawing satisfaction from it.

You have had top jobs in several organizations. Do you see any signs of bias in the workplace based upon gender?

Zheng: Luckily, I was not discriminated against when it came to opportunities. However, I do think that gender bias exists in the workplace. There are many people who hold the view that men inherently mange better than women. Females may more often be passed over for promotions, especially in industries that employ a high percentage of males, such as technology companies. But even in my sector, which has many brilliant women, it is rare to find a woman in management.

In your view, why are there so few women in leadership positions?

Zheng: As mentioned, women face a limitation in gaining promotions. They have to break the “glass ceiling” to reach the top.

Generally, women are also not as ambitious as men in the workplace. Women tend to focus more on bringing people together to get things done. Most of them seldom think about their ownpromotions. Men, however, are often in the spotlight and get promoted. That’s one of the phenomena I have observed.

Do you believe that women hold themselves back in the workplace?

Zheng: Yes, I do. In my view, caring for their families is a major reason high-achieving women leave their careers.

Do institutional hurdles exist?

Zheng: Yes, it does. There isa discrepancy between the retirement age of men and women. According to the regulations [in Mainland China], women have to retire five years earlier than men. So for example,if a man and a womanare of the same age, say in their 40s, and are competing for a top position, the woman is in a disadvantageous position because from the corporate point of view, shewould not be able to devote as many years to building the company as her male counterpart would.

In your team, are there more female or male employees?

Zheng: The numbers of female and male team members are similar.

Do you think they respond differently to you because you are a female leader?

Zheng: Yes, I believe so. Male employees tend to be more straightforward if they disagree with your decisions, while female employees tend to be more likely to discuss things in private. But I always encourage them to speak out.

Is there a difference between “male” and “female” leadership?

Zheng: I don’t believe that there are stereotypical forms of male and female leadership. However, I think women do have certain strength that can be emulated by all leaders. For example, women tend to be good listeners and they are often consensus builders. They can make teams more cohesive as well. On the other hand, men can develop more comprehensive and systematic solutions to problems–also a positive leadership trait.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

Zheng: To be honest, I’ve sacrificed part of my personal life for work. I am trying to achieve a better balance now. The relationship with my family is valuable to me. I hope I can spend more time with them.

What’s the one piece of advice you would like to offer other aspiring female leaders?

Zheng: Follow your passion and do what you love.


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