President and Chair of BP China Yang Xiaoping talks to The Economist’s Rachel Morarjee about her role as a female business leader
What path did you take to become the President of such a major company in China?
I started working at BP 27 years ago, working in the research and technology department in the US, before going on to work in the environmental technology department. When we expanded our China operations I came to head the joint venture in Hangzhou. I covered most of BP’s operations in China, so when the role of President opened up, I was one of the few people who had worked in both the US and in nearly every part of our China business, so I had both the qualifications and the experience.
The role is very complex and I am responsible for every part of the business from compliance and ethics, to crisis and risk management, to human resources development. It encompasses every part of the business and I have been lucky enough to work in nearly every part of the business over my career.
Who were your role models?
Many of my line managers and senior leaders have been role models in their way. Some were very commercially savvy while others were very good at handling people. We have a mentoring and coaching culture at BP and you can get access to senior people and free access to their thinking, which is enormously helpful.
Female leaders have to work in a male-dominated environment and they have it harder. If they are too strong, then they are told off for being not accommodating and if they are too soft then they get told they are not assertive enough. You have to find your own style. But the best female leaders, like Angela Merkel, are principled, complex and good at motivating and invigorating people.
Are there any challenges to your role that are specific to women in business?
For many years there were very few women in sales or in executive roles at BP but things are better developed now and there has been great progress. There are still oil companies where you see very few women at general manager level though, so there is still work to be done.
In our industry, a lot of time is spent in a casual setting, where work is discussed over drinks or informally, and often women are not included. That means that we need more support and more advocacy.
What are the benefits of being a woman in business?
Half of the world’s population are women and half our customers are women so if we don’t understand them then that’s a problem. If we promote more women, it gives companies and society access to a greater proportion of the labour force. In China, there is still a lot that needs to be done to get women to the top. We have good progress on women in middle management and in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education, but we need to do more to tackle institutionalised equality and build momentum.
Women have different benefits and strengths, so it makes sense that half the managers should be women. I have not seen anyone say that 50 percent of boards and senior managers should be women but why not? By 2035, women should be 50 percent of senior executives; which means they should be 40 percent by 2030 and 30 percent by 2025. Targets are important. If women advance, then men benefit too.
What advice do you have for men and for women?
Over the years we have had male thought leaders who have advocated for women so we should really thank men. But there can be a certain conscious or subconscious bias and we need to uncover that in order to not come across as condescending. Men need to be coached as well. If a man says, “Let me coach you” that is a sign that you are being valued.
For women, I would say, be yourself, be confident and don’t get too upset by problems. Be generous and look at issues with other people with a good heart. Try and understand where others are coming from.