Barnard returned to China over spring break to host its fifth annual global symposium, titled “Women Changing China,” the same name as the first symposium held in Beijing in 2009. Held in Shanghai this year, the symposium brought administrators, faculty, alumnae, and current students together in China to discuss female leadership in the country.
Barnard President Debora Spar said that the scale of this year’s event was significantly larger than before. Topics included what it means to “have it all” in Chinese society, the role of social media in women’s personal narratives, and the challenges and achievements of Chinese women entrepreneurs and business leaders.
“This year’s event reflected how much the symposia series has grown over the last five years,” Spar said in an email to Spectator. “In 2009, ‘Women Changing China’ consisted of just one panel discussion among four prominent women, and the conversation focused on their personal stories and perspectives on women’s activism and leadership in modern-day China.” This year’s event had 10 women speaking in three separate, more wide-ranging discussions.
Two of the 2009 panelists—Wu Qing, an activist and English-language professor, and Yang Lan, SIPA ’96 and chair of Sun Media Group and Sun Culture Foundation—returned for this year’s symposium.
Qing talked about the fundamental values of love, truth, and equal rights, while Lan talked about the challenges that urban women faced in rapidly-developing Chinese society.
“For working women, they are facing a lot of stress to balance their work and life. And also for younger women, they are facing a lot of temptations from materialism,” Lan said at one of the panels. “Because in the past 10 years, you see the wealth was accumulating at accelerated speed. And suddenly this temptation is all over the place. But I want to see big opportunity for Chinese women—because after this quite condensed economic, political, and social transformation of China, I see a process, which is happening already, of value rebuilding.”
Lan said she has an optimistic view for the future of China and the role of women in shaping that future.
“Their insights five years later, together with so many additional voices from different backgrounds and fields, raised fascinating ideas and questions and really took the central themes from 2009 to a new level,” Spar said about Qing and Lan.
Another panelist, Scarlett Li, founder and CEO of Zebra Media, spoke about the importance of female autonomy.
“If we don’t support ourselves and respect, we won’t win other people’s respect ... If you are over 32, female, in this room or outside of this room, you are not married, you don’t have children—it’s fine. You don’t have a boyfriend, you don’t have a husband? It’s fine. Because you have us,” Li said. “If you have a great man loving you, supporting you to be an independent woman, that would be great. If you cannot find one, it’s fine.”
Six Barnard students participated in the event as Global Symposium Student Fellows after being selected through a competitive application and interview process.
Two weeks prior to the symposium, the student fellows led a leadership workshop with 100 female high school students from the greater New York area. They later held the same workshop in Shanghai with 100 Chinese high school students, many of whom said they hoped to attend Barnard.
Student Fellow Julia Qian, BC ’15 and Barnard Student Government Association’s representative for diversity, said that the students in New York talked about issues that were very different compared with what the students in China talked about.
“I remember in the group that I had in New York, one group was talking about issues such as LGBT rights. But those issues are not as voiced, not as recognized or accepted in China. So what happened in China was there were groups coming up with projects like, ‘Let’s help the only child go outdoors and play with the other only child,’” Qian said.
The one-child policy was also part of the symposium’s panel discussions. According to Qian, an audience member spoke about how the policy helps women become leaders in China because they have to take care of fewer children.
Aside from these specific differences, Qian said that women in both China and the United States shared similar obstacles toward leadership.
“They’re all struggling to voice their opinions. They’re all struggling about the definition of leadership. Because for me, leadership is not a title—it’s who you are. But a lot of them are struggling to recognize how they could be leaders as females,” Qian said.