Chinese Business Students in Australia: a conundrum of gender

by Dr. Michael John Paton
CSC academic group:Education

Dr. Michael Paton, Senior Lecturer, Business School, is the University’s Teaching Quality Fellow/Senior Learning Adviser in Learning and Teaching in Business. Michael's work and research interests in communication skills deal with their relationship to culture, critical thinking and knowledge production. His other major research interests include the history and philosophy of science in China especially focusing on dili (the principles of the earth), fengshui (wind and water) and their relationship to the environment and culture. He is a Development Theme Leader for the University's Institute for Sustainable Solutions.

Students from China make up a large number of the international students in universities in Australia and many of these study business-related disciplines. In 2010, for example, a third of the international students studying in Australia came from China, with more than half of these studying management or business. This is reflected in the Chinese student cohort at the University of Sydney where 70% of the international students studying in the Business School come from China.

Not so well known is the gender imbalance in this student cohort. For the past decade at least two-thirds of the Chinese students studying in the Business School have been female. Of the 2,553 Chinese students in the Faculty in 2010, for example, 1,737 were women. Similar gender biases have been reported in studies on international accounting students in Australia (Jackling & Keneley, 2009).

quote Not so well known is the gender imbalance in this student cohort. For the past decade at least two-thirds of the Chinese students studying in the Business School have been female.

Why so many Chinese women as compared to men would want to study business in Australia poses somewhat of a conundrum.

Research has been undertaken as to what attracts Chinese students in general to Australian higher education. Yang (2007) delineates the major influences to be: knowledge and awareness of the high quality of Australian education; recommendations from family and friends; the Australian environment including lifestyle, climate and safety; the comparatively close geographic proximity; and social links including the prospect of immigration. This is confirmed by a recent survey asking 283 postgraduate international students why they were motivated to study in the Business School at the University of Sydney. The survey found that 91% of the students were Chinese, 10% allowed their parents to chose their current degree, and 35% chose their degree to gain Permanent Residency in Australia. A factor analysis of motivations and influences accounted for 63% of the variance. These factors were: family and friends, future prospects, self advancement, parents, and job difficulties without postgraduate qualifications.

There is no research, however, specifically targeting gender in relation to motivation for Chinese students to study in Australia. Granose (2007) does give some insight into present day gender differences in career perceptions in China. A survey of 233 managers employed in 16 organisations in China found that both men and women equally saw their career goals to be collectivism, family contribution and achievement, and equally used as career tactics loyalty to superiors and networking. The major difference was that women were more likely to obtain greater knowledge and more educational qualifications as a career tactic. This is one possible reason for the gender imbalance of Chinese students studying in the Business School.

Interestingly, Granose resorts to traditional Chinese philosophy for the theoretical background to her study. She uses the traditional Confucian hierarchical order of the ruler being the pinnacle of power and the youngest daughter the nadir. Granose also uses the Daoist tradition of a harmonious balance of yin/yang to give a cultural and historical perspective and even cites the concept found in the Yi Jing of men being related to heaven and women to earth.

Such an historical perspective on gender relations in China may be more useful than it would seem at first glance in relation to understanding the gender imbalance of Chinese business students in Australia. In traditional Chinese culture, women held little power and were seldom seen or written about to such an extent that my former teachers. Lily (Xiaohong) Lee and the late Agnes Stefanowska therefore, embarked upon a project in the early 2000s to write a biographical dictionary of Chinese women to redress the historical masculine account of Chinese history.

quote In traditional Chinese culture, women held little power and were seldom seen or written about

An insight into the extent to which women were denigrated in traditional Chinese culture can be garnered from perusal of popular late Ming dynasty fengshui manuals such as the Secretly Passed down Water Dragon Classic 秘傳水龍經. The Water Dragon Classic gives great insight into traditional 17th century Chinese culture. It was compiled by Jiang Pingjie 蔣 平 階, a famous late Ming dynasty poet and scholar, and it comprises 102 pages of diagrams with commentaries on the positive or negative outcomes of siting of both houses and graves. Siting is the search for and placement of graves and houses in the most auspicious site.

An example of one of these diagrams and its commentary is shown below:


Branching Water Intersecting the Water Pattern

(Diagram right) Seated below a branch of water is inserted either from the north east or north west. It meanders away to the south. One path goes to the left and another to the right. Severing the border to the left and right the dragon and tiger interlock and they embrace what is seated below forming the configurational force of the intersection and embrace of the dragon and tiger. At the end there is the formation of 'the palm of the immortal', which looks up to connect and protect (the node). …….The outer walls of the city being complete and solid and the configurational force of the situation being completely dense represents 100 sons and 1,000 grandsons, and the vermilion and the purple for the whole family....

The 100 sons and a thousand grandsons mentioned above obviously refer to men. In fact, in the commentaries on possible siting outcomes in the Water Dragon Classic, women are mentioned less than 5% of the time. An example can be seen below:

Land of Wanton Desire Pattern

(Diagram below) The form is like a lifted skirt and a duck's head. The daughters and wives will climb the wooden tower (become prostitutes).


Such a negative outcome for wives and daughters is not unusual in the Water Dragon Classic. The only positive outcome for a woman in all of the 102 pages of the text is that “the daughters' nobility attains that of an imperial concubine”. All other mentions of women are in a negative context. Examples include: “the elder brother commits adultery with the younger brother's wife; the sons are thieves and the daughters licentious; the family is separated from its inheritance and the daughter-in-law is licentious with her father-in-law; and a widow who invites a man to live with her as her husband loses the fields and house”. There are many references to the debauchery of women, for example:

The descendants are artisans. Sometimes they are warm and have enough to eat but sometimes they are failures. The women are prostitutes who are inferior and debauched.


One is only able to be an artisan or butcher. Although one can be warm and have enough to eat, there is debauchery among the women in the family.

In fact, one of the most negative outcomes for men from choosing bad siting results in ‘moving to live with the family of one’s wife’. Patriarchy is obviously in the ascendant in late Ming dynasty China, and the patriarchy displayed in the Water Dragon Classic is so dominant, as to indicate that such notions could easily flow through to present day Chinese culture even with its overlay of Marxist dialectics and market oriented discourse.

However, there still remains the question of why a much greater number of Chinese women choose business degrees in particular. Minglu Chen’s (2011) recent research into female entrepreneurs in China points to the liberating effect of commerce in that it frees women from the constraints of patriarchal power structures. This was certainly the message of Ms Yoshiko Shinohara, founder and president of a leading Asian temporary staffing company, when she addressed Business School students last year. She spoke of being able to transcend the traditional Japanese patriarchal system by starting her own business.

Recent research comparing women entrepreneurs in China who have worked and studied overseas and then returned to China with those that developed their ideas domestically reinforce the experience of Ms Shinohara. Alon et al., (2011, p. 329) found that those who travelled “are relatively more educated, start their businesses younger or reach executive positions at a relatively young age, utilise their external contacts and knowledge in addition to local guanxi, and innovate by bringing established foreign ideas back to China”.

Thus, traditional gender roles in China may give some historical cultural insight into the reason for the marked gender imbalance of Chinese students in business faculties in Australia. Just as importantly, however, the experience of the comparatively egalitarian spirit found in Australia and its erosion of patriarchal systems may help to explain why so many Chinese women choose to study business here.


Alon, I., E. Misati, T. Warnecke, and W.X. Zhang (2011) ‘Comparing domestic and returnee female entrepreneurs in China: is there an internationalisation effect?’ International Journal of Business and Globalisation vol. 6, no. 3-4, pp. 329-349.

Chen, Minglu, Tiger Girls: Women and Enterprise in the People’s Republic of China, London: Routledge, 2011.

Granrose, C. S. (2007) "Gender differences in career perceptions in the People's Republic of China", Career Development International, vol. 12 no. 1, pp.9 – 27.

Jackling, B. & M. Keneley (2009) ‘Influences on the supply of accounting graduates in Australia: a focus on international students’ Accounting and Finance, vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 141-159.

Jiang Pingjie (ed.) (circa 1600), Secretly Passed down Water Dragon Classic (Mi chuan shuilong jing) Cong shu ji xuan 0178, (Taibei: Xin wen feng chuban gongsi, 1988).

Yang, M. (2007) ‘What attracts mainland Chinese students to Australian higher education’Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development Vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 1–12.