Diversity in Tech
7 min read
November 30, 2020

Confidential Computing Leader, Sarah Zhang, Challenges China's Workplace Gender Bias


Crystal Reid

In a country where women of childbearing age are often shunned by employers, Points Technology Founder and CEO, Sarah Zhang, hopes to pass on the lessons of her non-conformist mother onto the next generation.

It wasn’t until she reached adulthood that Sarah Zhang was even aware gender bias existed. She was raised in Shanghai on China’s affluent east coast by a scientifically-minded father and a college-educated mother who, having regretted some of her own career choices, insisted the ambitions of her only child would not be blunted by the absence of a Y chromosome.

At 34, Zhang is the founder and CEO of Points Technology (PTS), a forward-thinking tech company making waves in blockchain and AI-facilitated confidential computing. In 2019, the World Economic Forum bestowed PTS with the Technology Pioneer Award, an accolade attained by both Google and Wikipedia in their startup days. PTS is already working with UnionPay, a Chinese Visa equivalent that handles 7 billion debit and credit cards, and is in talks with other domestic financial giants, including Alibaba’s Ant Financial and Tencent’s WeBank. Having raised $8 million in seed funding in 2018 shortly after its founding, PTS secured another $3 million at the start of this year.

So why all the excitement? Zhang is striving to provide a level and safe playing field for all in the global financial arena. In the bad old days, those wanting to secure loans from financial institutions were subjected to impersonal, inexact, and potentially risky credit checks. Applicants might see their business or home buying dreams shattered by bad credit history or a lack of one entirely, while data breaches, such as the one Equifax suffered in 2017, could leave private information exposed. With the help of new technologies, however, PTS is making secure financing available to everyone, including the unbanked.

The Beijing-founded company’s signature product calculates an individual’s credit score by assessing 80 different variables, such as occupation, bill payments, and online shopping habits. Not only does this system provide a more comprehensive picture of an applicant’s fiscal credentials, but the blockchain technology at its core works as a one-way highway, with financial institutions only able to view the end score rather than collating and storing the data themselves, as is the traditional, leak-prone model.

The team has also built accelerated learning products that help financial institutions collaborate on data analysis without exposing confidential information, and launched Coinsta, a mobile wealth management tool that provides services to people of all income levels. “All this new tech can enable more secure and fairer data collaborations, pushing the financial sector towards a better equilibrium between the value of data versus availability and protection for the public,” says Zhang.

It’s hardly surprising that Zhang chose to create such a noble ecosystem given the extent to which her own right to equality was hammered home in her youth. While she always had the talent, winning national tech competitions and the title of “Little Future Scientist” in high school, her mother worked hard to protect her from China’s deep-seated gender norms that might otherwise have flattened her trajectory. “When I was young, my mother felt there were lots of different social expectations about what a girl should be doing at what age. There were a lot of voices and noises and she didn’t want me to be intimidated,” says Zhang. “She always told me that they [Zhang’s parents] provided me with a good education to give me more options, so it was my responsibility to seek opportunities and not limit myself. That had a big impact on my personality.”

The unapologetic ambition instilled in Zhang manifested itself in ways some might call reckless. Feeling she could do better at an Ivy League college in the US, she quit Shanghai’s Fudan University, considered one of China’s best, after a year, despite her tutors warning against it. They told her she would never be accepted, had no chance of a scholarship, and would be accused of trying to enter America purely for immigration purposes. Her refusal to be deterred, however, saw her land a full scholarship at Washington University. “This mentality of trying and not being intimidated by what society or experts say is a very big gift from my mom,” says Zhang.

It wasn’t until she started as a post-grad at Harvard Business School that the idealistic student finally looked around and recognized the huge gender imbalance in STEM. Not only were her classes populated mainly by men, but after graduation, “when people started having babies”, she noticed a surprising number of her female alumni dropping out of the labor market altogether. Indeed, according to a 2013 study by Vanderbilt University, 30% of married moms who graduated from Ivy League colleges are not employed, compared to 20% of those from America’s least competitive universities.

“The challenge is not the capability of women, but society's bias against them. Are those merits strong enough to overcome the biases?”

Despite the intense social pressure that dictates Chinese women should marry and have children young, Zhang spent the next 10 years focusing on her career. She first came across blockchain while working as a growth hacker for American venture capitalist Tim Draper in Silicon Valley, where she says she never felt belittled or underestimated because of her gender. First concerned she might be pigeon-holed as a numerically gifted Asian, she found instead that she was taken on her merits. “If you have a good team around you that trusts you with important projects, you feel very empowered,” says Zhang. "You don’t have to be the stereotypical cookie-cutter person everyone expects you to be.”

Upon returning to China in 2016, however, Zhang found that she had a whole lot more to prove. She served as chair of blockchain talent platform dCamp, as the senior director of Segway Robotics, and a senior product manager at Amazon. Still she was consistently badgered by questions about her marital status and baby plans. A woman of childbearing age is a risky investment for employers, who, under Chinese law, must pay maternity insurance or foot the entire bill for maternity leave. This lack of protection for women in the workplace often results in prying questions and even forced pregnancy tests at recruitment, practices that are discouraged now but neither illegal nor uncommon.

Despite now running her own matriarchy, Zhang is still not immune to gendered preconceptions about her abilities. On a macro level, China has more self-made female billionaires than anywhere else in the world. In her micro experiences, however, Zhang says she is often asked by potential stakeholders how she can be competitive in a male-dominated arena and even if she’s emotionally stable. “There’s no political correctness filter in terms of gender bias,” she says. “They’ll say this stuff out loud to your face. Can you imagine?”

Refusing to buy into the “bullshit social expectations”, Zhang — whose headcount has doubled to more than 40 in the last year — says she always employs the most suitable candidate for the job. More often than not, that’s a woman. “These days, Chinese girls all study very hard and go to college, and many people think women are better at building relationships and learning foreign languages,” she says. “The challenge is not the capability of women, but society's bias against them. Are those merits strong enough to overcome the biases?”

As her niche continues to grow — last month Garner predicted that privacy-enhanced computing would be a top tech trend of 2021 — Zhang hopes inequality, both in and outside of the financial sector, will gradually diminish. Having given birth to a baby girl of her own this year, “very late by Chinese standards”, Zhang hopes to furnish her daughter with the same mindset her mother nurtured in her. “Don’t let the noise get in your way,” she tells her daughter and women in general. “You are a part of this group called women, but you’re also an individual. Don’t let the disproportionate odds impact your ambition.”

Featured Illustration by Renike Olusanya

Renike Olusanya is a Nigerian visual artist, who has a background in graphic design. Most of her works now focus on illustration & traditional art (watercolor, charcoal, and acrylic paintings). Learn more about Renike's work on her website.

Artistic Image of Sarah Zhang
Portrait of Sarah Zhang by Renike Olusanya


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