Over the last two decades the Chinese government has pushed through a series of reforms designed to revitalise and liberalise its economy. But the outcomes haven’t necessarily been positive for China’s women.
In the world’s most populous country, where men outnumber women, it’s interesting that fewer women appear to be joining, or remaining, in the workforce than in previous decades.
Former chairman of the Communist Party in China, Mao Zedong, famously promoted the slogan that “women hold up half the sky.” With 90% of China’s working age women in cities in employment by the 1970s, that seemed to be the case.
This January 2018 photos shows Chinese employees creating toys at a factory in China's eastern Jiangsu province (Credit: Getty Images)
But as market reforms have taken off, pulling more private companies in to the employer mix, female labour rates have steadily declined – by 2010, the census showed that only 44.7% of women were employed. That’s a proportion far higher than some developed countries, but still a huge drop.
I think women have shouldered most of the cost and burden during the transition from a planned economy to the market economy - Zhang
One critic of the reforms, social commentator and author Zhang Lijia, says that China’s shift from a planned economy to a market economy model has brought changes and opportunities for both men and women – particularly urban and educated women. But it has also brought setbacks, including job losses.
“I think women have shouldered most of the cost and burden during the transition from a planned economy to the market economy,” she says. “For example, [in] ailing state-owned enterprises, women are always [the] first to be let off.”
Zhang has personal experience of the changes that she wrote about it in her book, Socialism is Great. Growing up in Nanjing, the capital of China’s eastern Jiangsu province, she started working at a missile factory at the age of 16. The village she lived in served as a residential area for a local machinery factory, which was run by the Ministry of Aerospace Industry.
“They had a rule that women [of] about 45 years old were let off from my worker unit,” she says, suggesting that this was a blanket rule in place at the factory.
Some refuse to hire women of child-bearing age - Zhang
She thinks the shift to the market economy has allowed more businesses to get away with unscrupulous practices towards female workers in China. “Before, there was this kind of Maoist-style gender equality. Now it’s being replaced by open sexism,” she says.
Zhang goes on to say that “it’s just so much harder to get jobs because they make extra demands… some companies will refuse to hire women of child-bearing age. And sometimes if a woman gets pregnant, they will sack them. Sometimes they will force women to write that ‘in the next ten years I promise I will not have children.’”
Recent figures show that women in China’s cities now earn 67.3% of what men make. Meanwhile, for women in the countryside, it’s even less at 56%.
As with other countries there are several contributing factors for this gender pay gap. But one difference in China are mandatory retirement ages. Women must retire earlier than men – that’s age 55 for state employees, versus age 60 for men.
E-commerce startups in China are attracting many millennial workers, including many women (Credit: Getty Images)
Perhaps you need look no further to China’s political elite to see the disparity between male and female representation in the workforce. The ruling Communist Party has just one woman in its 25-strong Politburo while the more powerful Politburo Standing Committee has never had a female member. Of the 204 members, only ten are women.
China has been through a period of rapid growth. But the fact that entrenched traditional perceptions of male and female roles remain means that it could still have a long way to go before it attains any real breakthroughs underpinning its vast economy.
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