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Debunking the “Queen Bee” Effect: eBay’s Vivian Tian on Women in Tech in China

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Next week, Vivian Tian will be flying to London to find out whether she’ll be named one of the winners of Booking.com’s Technology Playmaker Awards and pocketing €5,000. The first ever finalist in the awards to come from China, she’s competing in the Tech Innovator category against a Forbes 30Under30 list-member, the founder of the world’s first headset-earrings company, and someone who specializes in glowing plants. Yes — glowing, not growing.

But as the General Manager of eBay’s China Center of Excellence (CCOE), and an advisor for Ladies Who Tech, she can certainly stand her ground. Under Vivian’s leadership, eBay’s CCOE has grown into a technology powerhouse with over 500 professionals specializing in big data, AI, and cloud computing. In 2015, CCOE’s Kylin project — a distributed analytics engine that supports large datasets — became a Top Level Project on Apache, an open source software. And when we say large, we’re talking about processing 13 billion rows of data in less than 3 seconds.

We talked to Vivian about the startup landscape in China, technology for a better world, and her hopes for women in STEM industries.

Vivian (third from left) hosting a Ladies Who Tech in Action event in 2018. Source: Ladies Who Tech

RADII: Did you always know you wanted to work in technology?

Vivian: Back in 1984, when I was in my first year of senior school, I participated in a programming class which was very rare at the time. I was so interested in computers and full of curiosity about the world of “0” and “1”. I never thought I would be anything other than an engineer.

It was in 2012, after I had been working in the telecom industry for more than 20 years, that I started to look for an opportunity to realize my dream of building a best-in-class R&D organization in China. eBay CCOE fulfilled all my hopes for a job: a multi-national e-commerce company; a large R&D organization with cutting-edge technologies on big data, cloud, search, payment; an industry with substantial growth potential, etc.

eBay’s CCOE wins 2nd place in the 2013 Great Place to Work awards competition for Greater China. Source: eBay

What was it like learning to code for the first time?

It was like magic to a senior middle school student.

You were a key initiator of the eBay Torch Big Data Innovation Center, which provides startups with technical mentoring and marketing services to help them scale. Can you talk about the importance of startups in China’s economy?

China is developing rapidly in the Internet and information technology fields. Especially in mobile payment, social networking, e-commerce, and smart news, startups are the driving force behind innovation and future development.

You once said that you hope the innovation center uses big data, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence to drive the concept of “technology for a better world.” With terms like “AI” and “big data” often drawing fear from the public, especially after the 2018 Facebook scandal, how does technology factor into that vision of a “better world”?

With the development of AI, big data, Internet of things (IoT), genes, and neurology, technology can help us improve disease diagnosis and cure efficiency, improve people’s quality of life, and help us automate many daily repetitive tasks, allowing us to free up more time to do meaningful and challenging things that require emotional attention. Of course, technology has inevitably entered the most private places of humanity. The most important issue is focused on data. I personally believe that all countries and industries should participate in the regulation of data collection and application. Without infringing upon personal data, data sharing should be done as much as possible. Only more effective data can further promote the research and development of AI.

According to a State Council report, more than 55% of tech startups are founded by women in China compared to 22% in the US. Why do you think more Chinese women are leading startups than men?

What’s even more striking is that when asked if the company has plans to increase the number of women in leadership, 67% of US companies and 80% of UK companies gave negative responses. In sharp contrast, 63% of Chinese companies gave a positive answer. Obviously, Chinese women are much more representative at the top of the company, and more companies have introduced relevant plans and measures to achieve higher levels of gender equality. The above three numbers are a powerful refutation of the “Queen Bee” effect. When a company has enough female senior management power, they will definitely support more women to participate in senior management.

When a company has enough female senior management power, they will definitely support more women to participate in senior management

As I explored this issue more, I also found several reasons why Chinese workplace mothers are so different. First, because China’s technology industry is an emerging industry, it is also a huge opportunity for those with non-traditional experience to gain an opportunity that is not available in other more mature ecosystems.

In addition, the One Child Policy has played a role in this, because it allowed Chinese urban women to benefit and gave them more opportunities to receive higher education. In 2010, women accounted for half of China’s doctoral students. China is also one of the countries with the highest female labor force participation rate in Asia.

China has become our new role model in the STEM field. Compared to a decade ago, this phenomenon is more important for Silicon Valley, because now Sino-US technology companies are competing. We must always remember that it was a Chinese company, not Lyft, who defeated Uber. The winner of this competition was a female face and a working mother.

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Why is it so important to retain females in technology leadership positions?

Women always provide a different perspective, and the diversity of thoughts will result in stronger decision making. Women, especially those who have kids, have a stronger sense of accountability and stronger resilience, and they think more thoroughly when assessing risks, which is incredibly important given the unpredictable global business environment.

What advice would you give to girls wanting to pursue a career in tech?

For young women, my advice is to stay focused and study diligently, and work hard to develop irreplaceability in a certain field.

My first job after grad school was as an engineer at Lucent. My main job was to do communications workflow. At the time, the company used a private programming logic, and only two or three people at Lucent could do this job. My mentor was too busy to teach me so I spent four weeks looking at the documentation, source program, and data myself, and found time to consult my mentor to clarify its logic, structure, and process. In the end, not only could I do it myself, but I helped the team start doing it. I knew the pain of studying on my own, so I took the time to write a nearly 300-page user’s guide, not only to start training within the company, but to train the customers themselves to do this workflow.

I have never thought about gender issues or what obstacles they would bring to my growth. I focused more on perfecting my work

But I still felt like this work had a lot of repetitive tasks. I started to try to automate the whole workflow. In less than a year, this system was formed. This job no longer requires manual intervention, and our team has turned to work with more technical challenges and value. That year, the whole process was promoted by me – a recent grad. No one asked me to do this. And there was no previous process that I could use for reference. It was my determination to strive for excellence and never being satisfied that made me quickly stand out among my peers.

In my experience, I have never thought about gender issues or what obstacles they would bring to my growth. I focused more on perfecting my work. I expect more young women to invest in the computer field, focus on technology, forge ahead, and achieve the future!

Source: Ladies Who Tech

You said earlier that you’ve fulfilled your dream of working at a large R&D organization. Any new dreams?

I want to build a world-class R&D organization in China with the best talents and most innovative projects to have a significant impact on business and industry. Moreover, I want to create an environment where everybody can grow, contribute, and be happy!

Cover photo: courtesy of Ladies Who Tech and V Photo

Julienna Law
    Julienna Law is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California. In her free time, she likes designing graphics, studying Chinese, and listening to the seven loves of her life, K-pop group BTS.

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