“It’s better to marry well than have a successful career” is one of those well-worn, paternalistic axioms Chinese women often hear. While “marrying well” could mean finding a kind, thoughtful, and emotionally supportive spouse, in this context it frequently refers to finding a man with good connections, a prestigious job, and typically a high salary — though of course, these are not always mutually exclusive.
It’s a distinctly retrograde, patriarchal line of thinking, one used to convince or comfort women leaving the workforce that they’re actually better off doing so — and it seems to be making a comeback. Despite frequent — if often halfhearted — noises from the Chinese government and media in support of women’s rights, China seems to actually be moving backward when it comes to gender equality.
According to the most recent edition of a decennial nationwide survey on the social status of Chinese women, 40.7 percent of men and 48 percent of women agree with the statement “It’s better to marry well than have a successful career” — an increase of 10.5 and 10.7 percentage points from 2000, respectively. Meanwhile, 61.6 percent of men and 54.8 percent of women still believe that, “men should focus on their jobs, and women on their families.”
Curious at this resurgence of traditional values, I decided to investigate whether marrying well really was “better” for a person than professional success. Of course, what constitutes as “good” or “better” in this context is not easy to define. For my study, I chose to approach the topic through the prism of subjective well-being. For data, I drew on survey responses from all eight rounds of the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) conducted between 2003 and 2013.
One of the most common means of measuring a person’s subjective well-being is self-reported happiness, and the CGSS conveniently includes a question asking respondents to rate their overall happiness on a scale from “Very Unhappy” to “Very Happy.” This allowed me to analyze how a person’s subjective feelings of well-being are affected by the social and economic status of their spouse.
I began by looking at respondents’ occupations, personal incomes, and educational backgrounds. These three factors, taken together, provided a rough sketch of the person’s overall social standing. I then did the same for their spouses to see how “well” they had married.
I found that broadly speaking, an individual’s personal income, household income, and occupation were all positively associated with how happy they reported being. In other words: Regardless of gender, a person’s level of professional success — and the accompanying class status it granted them — was closely tied to their subjective well-being. Professional success is clearly still a viable path to happiness for both men and women alike.
Where men and women started to differ, however, was in how their spouse’s social and economic status impacted their own subjective well-beings. For most men, their wives’ class position had almost no bearing on their own happiness. Men also did not report being any more or less happy depending on their share of total household income. It did not seem to matter to married men, at least not emotionally, how professionally successful their wives were or were not.
This is not the case for married women. The correlation is clear: The higher their spouse’s social and economic position, the happier they themselves reported being. In fact, women’s subjective well-beings were even more closely correlated to their spouse’s professional standing than to their own. This means that — according to CGSS data — a woman would be happier if she married a CEO than if she became a CEO herself. It’s not as though the latter outcome would fail to make her happy; it’s just that it might not be as effective as the former.
Meanwhile, women also reported lower levels of happiness the greater their share of total household income. Thus, while earning more money may make a woman happier, the effect is not as pronounced if it is not accompanied by a proportional increase in her spouse’s income. It seems there is still a societal expectation that men act as the primary breadwinners.
Indeed, traditional gender norms are still prevalent in China. Although women made great strides in the public sphere during the Maoist period (1949-1976) — including in education and the workforce — in the private sphere, conservative ideas about gender roles have proven harder to revolutionize. In the four decades since the launch of China’s market reforms, the government has retreated from many of its earlier stances in favor of women’s rights, and these bits of “conventional wisdom” and outdated stereotypes about women’s societal roles — which were never truly eliminated, but rather simply pushed out of sight — have reasserted themselves in the public sphere with a vengeance.
Oddly, the persistence of these old-fashioned stereotypes may help explain why Chinese women generally report higher levels of happiness than their male counterparts — even as the labor market has grown increasingly hostile toward women, and the state has pulled back from many social welfare provisions, including child care. This seeming paradox may be a positive psychological side effect of women embracing the belief that their spouse’s professional success is more important than their own. As long as their husbands are doing well, it can help mitigate the negative impact of their own falling status.
Although my study suggests that, as a piece of advice, “it’s better to marry well than have a successful career” is not entirely divorced from reality, I do not believe this means women should give up striving for professional success and just settle for marrying a man with a good job. On the contrary, I think it simply sheds more light on a crucial issue facing modern China: what the American sociologist Paula England refers to as the country’s “uneven and stalled” gender revolution.
Just because Chinese women’s subjective well-beings are more closely correlated with their husband’s social standing than their own, this doesn’t mean it is some natural, permanent state of affairs. It merely means that Chinese women have so thoroughly internalized traditional, patriarchal gender norms, that these ideas have fundamentally altered how women perceive their own happiness.
This makes it all the more important for us to push back. Between 2000 and 2010, the workforce participation rate of Chinese women dropped by seven percentage points. The first step toward reversing this trend — and the growing entrenchment of traditional gender norms in general — is opening our eyes to what’s going on. All young women should have the right to grow up in an environment where they feel free to pursue their own definition of happiness — whether that be a good marriage, a good career, or both.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Cai Yingli/Caixin/VCG)