Alibaba Just Hosted a Lovefest for Women

It's Casting Itself as a Leader on Hiring Women, an Issue Where Silicon Valley Falls Short

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This week, Alibaba hosted a lovefest (er, conference) for women entrepreneurs. Executive Chairman Jack Ma gushed about how women are more loyal, resilient, persistent, considerate and selfless than men. One audience member asked him for a hug; another gave him flowers.

The Chinese internet and e-commerce giant has been trying to be more international, and it appears to be casting itself as a global role model for the tech industry on the issue of hiring women and encouraging their entrepreneurial aspirations.

As Alibaba's first "Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship" opened Wednesday in Hangzhou, China, the company posted an infographic: 40% of its employees are women, as are 35% of management. It boasted of creating a nationwide wave of women's entrepreneurship, since 51% of sellers on Alibaba's massive eBay-like Taobao platform are women.

Those numbers put it ahead of Silicon Valley. Apple, Google and Twitter all say just 30% of employees are women. There have been new discussions about how women are treated in Silicon Valley since Ellen Pao fought and lost a gender discrimination case again Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm. In that context, it's possible Alibaba saw an opportunity to step forward and promote one of its strengths.

In Hangzhou, media mogul Arianna Huffington and actress and entrepreneur Jessica Alba spoke alongside women in leadership roles at Alibaba, and Mr. Ma answered questions from the crowd. He dispensed relationship advice for young single women. ("I would get married at a late age.") He mused on vanity. ("Those who care too much about their feathers -- women or men -- will not do anything great.") He fielded awkward comments. ("I like you very much," one woman told him. "I almost have a crush on you.")

Later, Mr. Ma told reporters that hiring women was something that happened naturally, and that he didn't realize the percentage was high until a reporter asked him about it two months before the initial public offering in New York in September. Of the company's 18 founders, six are women.

"Without women, there would be no Alibaba," Mr. Ma told reporters. (Journalists were instructed not to ask about anything besides the topic du jour, women. Days earlier, Alibaba had been hit by a new lawsuit from Gucci's parent company accusing it of facilitating the sale of fakes online; it has said it will fight the suit.)

Given Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.'s pride on its gender balance, a job ad it posted a few weeks back was especially embarrassing. The bizarre ad sought applicants resembling a popular Japanese porn actress for a job flattering, cajoling and inspiring computer programmers. There was an online backlash, and Alibaba apologized, saying it was an attempt at humorous marketing to recruit talent. But it should remember that for global leaders, screw-ups like that become global news.

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