Women’s critical mass helps change male-dominated cultures and promote women’s career advancement, but its effects vary across organizational domains and are sometimes constrained by persistent gender structures and power relationships inside and outside workplaces. By analyzing a nationally representative sample of China’s private companies, this study examines how women’s representation, not only in sheer numbers but also in certain powerful positions (e.g., owners or shareholders), affects women’s leadership potential. Despite evidence of positive trends in women’s leadership in the Chinese corporate context, women’s representation has been hamstrung by institutional legacies (e.g., partial state ownership). The effects of women’s representation also differ by industrial sector. Women are more likely to reach senior management in low-tech, labor-intensive industries, where women dominate the workforce, than in industries with higher technological demands, where men dominate the workforce. Women owners or shareholders matter more for the promotion of women CEOs in higher-tech companies. Our study contributes to the literature on gendered organizations by offering insights on how transitional institutional forces and large industrial systems converge and interact with women’s representation to affect their upward occupational trajectory in developing contexts.

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