Do Chinese women get half the credit for holding up half the sky?

Chinese women at West Lake, Hangzhou (Zhou Jia, Flickr)
A ‘moderately prosperous society’ with no Chinese individual left behind — that was the vision set out by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his epic speech to the 19th National Congress on 18 October 2017. He mentioned gender just once in the speech. It may have deserved more attention than that.

[A woman reads ribbons at a wishing tree in Badachu park during Spring Festival celebrations marking Chinese New Year in Beijing, China, 17 February 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peter).] There have been marked improvements in the socio-economic status of Chinese women during the communist era. Under Mao, from 1949 to 1976, women were considered essential for socialist construction and said to ‘hold up half the sky’. In the post-Mao era, successive leaders — including Xi Jinping — have affirmed China’s commitment to equality.

But gender equality is much easier said than done.

Nothing illustrates this better than China’s ranking as the most gender imbalanced country in the world, with a sex-ratio-at-birth that rose steadily from the mid-1980s onwards, when (illegal) pre-natal gender tests and sex-selective abortion became widespread. The strong preference for sons became increasingly apparent in the sex-ratio-at-birth figures (peaking at 121.18 boys per 100 girls born in 2004, compared with a global norm of 106).

This has been coupled with the revival of traditional Chinese views about the role of women, epitomised by the saying that ‘women are in charge of the household, men are in charge of the political domain’ and evident in Xi Jinping’s 2015 campaign ‘looking for the most beautiful family’. Of course, China is not the only country to have gender equity problems — there is no country that doesn’t. But ranking at 37th on the United Nation’s 2015 gender inequality index, it is clear that gender equality remains only an ideal (for some, if not all) in China.

This is certainly the case for individual earnings, for which a gender gap has persisted throughout the reform period despite early expectations that efficiency brought by market-oriented reforms would reduce gender discrimination. Instead, inequality has been increasing, much of which is attributed to gender discrimination rather than observable factors such as gender differences in human capital or occupational choices.

China’s integration into the global economy has also made its mark, with women (both urban and rural migrants) being more likely to be employed in low-wage export-oriented manufacturing sectors than in high-wage foreign firms and joint ventures. Gender segregation is evident in the self-employment sector as well, which has become increasingly important in the face of substantial lay-offs in state-owned enterprises (in which women are disproportionately affected), and where women tend to concentrate in the least financially rewarding sectors, including domestic care and street peddling. All of these factors have exacerbated the earnings gap at the lower end of the income distribution in particular.

Political capital is also a significant determinant of the gender earnings gap, underpinned by substantial gender gaps in Communist Party membership (at a ratio of nearly four to one for males to females), coupled with evidence that party members are more likely to be promoted and to receive further education and training. The higher one moves up the political hierarchy, the worse this ratio becomes — the Politburo Standing Committee being ‘boys only’ since it began in 1949.

These factors have been compounded by a decline in female participation in the labour market, attributed to intensified pressures on women arising from their dual responsibilities as (unpaid) family carers and income earners. One study claims that the gender earnings gap in urban China could primarily be attributed to the gender divide in household work — at 36 hours versus 18 hours per week for working women and men respectively. Not surprisingly, married women and mothers face the most significant disadvantages in the labour market as a result.

Of the ‘circumstantial’ factors that lie beyond an individual’s control and determine earnings, gender is the most important contributor to individual earnings inequality — ahead of one’s father’s occupation and education, one’s rural or urban hukou status, one’s ethnicity and one’s region of birth. And the choices that individuals make — such as the pursuit of higher education, higher-risk or higher-paying employment, and even marriage —compound gender inequality results rather than alleviate them.

This distinction between circumstances and choices is an important one, because inequality that derives from uneven circumstances — or inequality of opportunity — is widely accepted as being unfair and unjust, while inequality deriving from different choices need not be.

But it is not this simple. As one author has described it, a commonly-held aspiration of young, university-educated urban Chinese women is to ‘be able to manage a decent career without interrupting the norms of marriage and childbearing while maintaining feminine charm and without becoming a threat to the established gender order’. If this is their true aspiration — choosing to accord with traditional Chinese views about women’s role in society — then it may seem reasonable that their earnings are less, on average, than their male contemporaries. Yet the Chinese state’s ‘beautiful family’ campaign suggests that it is not quite as straightforward as that.

And then there are the dishes. No-one in their right mind would choose to do double the hours of household work as their partner, when both are working full-time. Efforts to improve childcare systems and grant paternity, as well as maternity, leave, are two equal-opportunity policies that could make a small dint in this regard (even if the take-up on paternity leave would likely be very low). More important would be a cultural shift towards equal contributions within the household. This is a challenge for women the world over, and one well worth campaigning for if we don’t all want to be left behind.

Jane Golley is Associate Professor and the Acting Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article draws on recent empirical research undertaken by the author with Yixiao Zhou from Curtin University and Meiyan Wang from the Chinese Academy of Social Science. A draft version of the paper will be available on request from 1 April. Contact for a copy.

This article was originally published on The East Asia Forum website.

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8 March 2018

Updated:  6 October 2016/Responsible Officer:  Director/Page Contact:  Admin