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Those are the people who end up running China from the leafy, high-walled Zhongnanhai leadership compound in central Beijing.

But getting to those positions can be hard for a woman, for sometimes maddening reasons.

“To become a mayor of a big city or a governor of a province, you have to be sort of one of the boys, you have to drink a lot and maybe womanize a bit and also be reasonably corrupt,” Mr. Lam said. “There’s no lack of corrupt women in China, but this to-be-one-of-the-boys phenomenon, I think, is holding some promising female cadres back.”

Ms. Feng, the Beijing rights advocate, has run training workshops on women’s rights. She says aspiring female politicians complain about the “drinking culture” in Chinese politics, but many say sexual politics also holds them back.

Fewer women in power

It is common for powerful Chinese men to have mistresses, which can make it difficult for women to curry favor or even cooperate with their male superiors without inviting suspicion.

One female deputy director of an agency told Ms. Feng that if she went to the office of her male boss to discuss work, he typically would stand at the door to talk to her. If they had to be in his office, he insisted on leaving the door open.

“This was to prevent rumors,” Ms. Feng said. “If you have to be that careful in day-to-day work, imagine how hard it would be to actually promote a female. People would talk. They would wonder about just how close the relationship was.”

Though China’s communists have done much to improve women’s lives by increasing their access to education, health care and jobs once reserved for men, they have failed to meaningfully increase women’s political participation.

Since the 1970s, the number of women serving in China’s parliament has actually fallen, and less than a quarter of the Communist Party’s members are women.

Also, women typically get shunted into positions considered “women’s work,” such as family planning and public relations.

In 2009, females accounted for just 11 percent of leadership positions at the ministerial or provincial level, only slightly better than figures for 2000.

No feminist movement

In the early days of Communist Party rule, the wives of Mao Zedong, Lin Biao and Zhou Enlai were given positions on the Politburo, but their tenures did little to pave the way for other women.

Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, led a series of purges that, after Mao’s death in 1976, resulted in her being sentenced to death for counterrevolutionary crimes.

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