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September 9, 2009

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Expat professional ladies forge ties

MANY expat clubs and associations in Shanghai cater to women - mostly as trailing spouses who have given up friends and career in their native countries to follow their husbands on assignment. But the traditional model is changing and more and more women are passionate about pursuing their own careers in Shanghai, or coming here specifically for the great opportunities China has offered.

For these women the Expat Professional Women's Society (EPWS) fills a gap.

Set up in the early 2000 by a group of working expat women who could not find a group catering to their interests, EPWS is now a small, intimate group that focuses on women's issues at the intersection of life and work.

"Women often find work-life balance difficult - and it's especially true in China," says Lei Cheng Wong, newly elected president of EPWS for the next year.

"For women it's naturally difficult to cut off work from life, and in China different variables, like being expected to be available at international times, accentuate this. The transience and cultural differences also make it difficult to balance children and home considerations with moving up in your career or switching careers."

From a small base the group has grown to more than 250 members - still a small club compared to the chambers of commerce.

New members will be welcomed at the annual mixer on September 15, but Wong says the aim is to stay small and intimate.

"Part of our mission is to support expat women in their personal and professional development, and a smaller group allows us to focus on the niche and to have that feeling of community. For many members it's what they're looking for and have really come to value."

Events include forums in which women lend support to each other on a given topic, talks with invited speakers in the evenings or at breakfast to fit around a workday, and outings, golfing and member mixers.

More activities

Topics have included "how to manage your Chinese team" and women and entrepreneurship. On the daily life-side, one popular talk was "Renting vs Buying in China."

EPWS also co-hosted the recent visit by Cherie Blair who spoke about life as the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, while being a professional woman in her own right.

After a two-month slowdown during the summer holidays, Wong has planned new developments for the next year. As well as supporting expat professionals, the group also aims to be influential in the community. Wong plans to ramp up cooperation with charities, encourage other organizations to attend EPWS events, and to take part in the Shanghai Charity Carnival in November.

EPWS plans to revive the annual Business Woman of the Year awards - it was canceled last year due to the recession which reduced necessary sponsorship.

The awards ceremony is a lavish evening affair that recognizes outstanding women in business for the past year and raises money for charity through tickets sales and auctions.

Wong says it's important for the event to live on.

"When I joined EPWS as a member over four years ago, this was the only event recognizing women for their achievements. It's a noble cause as it celebrates the achievements of all women here, not just those elected. Also we ask everyone in the community to nominate women for the awards so it forges stronger community ties."

As the group grows, Wong has also created subgroups to maintain the sense of connection and intimacy. Subgroups include mentoring and entrepreneurship.

"Hopefully, if you meet the same few people several times, members will be comfortable calling each other up for coffee and advice," says Wong.

Annual mixer

Date: September 15, 6:30pm

Venue: Bonito, 1/F, The Loft, 283 Jianguo Rd W.

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