Five Chinese women: Some are smart, rich, and running the show; others just want a piece of the booming economy.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – THE MAOIST SLOGAN "WOMEN HOLD UP HALF THE SKY" has adorned the walls of buildings in China for more than 50 years. Indeed, the Communist Party's official support for women's equality has fostered a visible and growing cadre of educated and successful professional women. It has also helped undermine a 2,000-year-old mindset, dating back to feudal times, that women are inferior to men. Today women compete with men at the best universities. There's a woman boss at China's largest steel company. And 1.5 million female entrepreneurs run small and medium-sized businesses, 98% of which, according to Lu Xiaofei, editor of China Women's Daily, turn a profit--"which shows we are good with money."

But apart from a lucky elite with MBAs and the ability to raise millions of dollars from foreign investors, the vast majority of women in the workforce in China don't have it so easy. "Most small-business owners have very little opportunity for growth," says Lu. "Government policies do not favor them, making it difficult to get approval for a loan." The success of a relatively small number of women masks deeper problems of discrimination, which begin in the crib. Boy babies are still prized more highly than girl babies. Maoist rhetoric notwithstanding, women are more likely to lose their jobs when state enterprises close down. And in the countryside a disproportionate number of women are denied higher education. More and more of them, migrant workers from poor villages, flood into China's cities to fill the jobs at the bottom--a bottom occupied overwhelmingly by women.

Still, education and economic progress offer the best hope for Chinese women. And as the five examples featured in these pages show, from the factory floor to the boardroom, women are doing an outstanding job holding up their half of the economic sky.

REPORTER ASSOCIATES Barney Gimbel, Zhang Dahong