In China, Women Face a Balancing Act
In early June, the talk show “Talk to Her” ran a special segment on the so-called dual income, no kids (DINK) lifestyle. Largely consisting of a series of dialogues, the debate after it aired centered around comments made by one of the guests — 42-year-old Li Na.
A successful entrepreneur, Li spent almost 7 million yuan ($1.05 million) on in vitro fertilization and overcame severe health issues to have three children — and is now a full-time mother. According to Li, “A woman’s responsibility is to have children, not to earn money. Women nowadays are becoming like men. They’re not having kids; they’re going off to make money.”
Li’s statements provoked backlash among feminists, but her ideas have deep roots in Chinese culture. Many women — even educated ones like my mother and two sisters — say that a woman’s primary responsibility is to have children, not a career, and that “marrying well” is a better option for women than is professional success.
The very idea of marrying well is predicated on the assumption that finding the right man and having children is the best way for women to realize their dreams. It places men squarely at the center of female wish fulfillment, and any attendant loss of autonomy is deemed irrelevant. The concept of “professional success,” on the other hand, suggests that women's dream lives need not necessarily involve men.
A survey on the social status of Chinese women conducted in 2000 by the All-China Women’s Federation and the National Bureau of Statistics found that 34 percent of participants — both male and female — agreed with the notion that it is better for women to marry well than to pursue professional success. When the survey was conducted again in 2010, 44 percent of participants agreed — an increase of 10 percent. That same year, 61 percent of male participants and 54 percent of female participants said that they agreed with the statement: “Men should focus on society, while women should focus on their families” — up 7 percent and 4 percent, respectively, from 2000.
These findings might seem surprising. A famous Chinese gender equality slogan from the 1950s proclaimed that “women hold up half the sky.” More to the point: Living standards are on the rise and feminist ideals are spreading, so why do many women still believe so firmly that marrying well promises a better life than professional success?
One reason might be that, with all of the injustice and discrimination women face at work, it’s not exactly easy for them to achieve professional success. In 2017, Zhaopin — a well-known Chinese job recruitment website — published the results of a study on the current state of women in the workplace. The study showed that over 80 percent of female respondents had experienced sexism while at work and that 22 percent believed sexism in the workplace to be “severe” — compared to just 14 percent of men.
Chinese women also struggle to smash through the glass ceiling. In the aforementioned study, 59 percent of men surveyed said that they had received their first promotion within two years of starting work, compared to 49 percent of women. In addition, 72 percent of all respondents reported that their direct supervisor was male.
Chinese women often claim that they struggle to advance professionally because of suspicions that they will one day have children and ask for maternity leave, or because of the belief that women will choose their home lives over their professional ones. In that same Zhaopin study, discrimination against working women between 25 and 35 years old — a period crucial to professional development and when many women choose to have children — was especially blatant.
Until the 1990s, many Chinese people worked for State-owned enterprises (SOEs) instead of private companies . Then as now, the fundamental reality of China’s patriarchal society meant that women bore the brunt of household chores. Nonetheless, the generous benefits provided by their employers — such as child care provision and company-funded schools — effectively lowered the cost for women to work, helping them balance their professional and family lives. But since the advent of SOE reforms, many benefits have been axed on grounds of efficiency, and so more and more women have flooded the private sector.
Furthermore, though women now enjoy at least 98 days of maternity leave, Chinese labor laws still don’t mandate paternity leave, and the few places that do offer it only provide 7-10 days. Such female-oriented leave policies help cement the stereotype that childcare is a woman’s responsibility.
Even for the women who do manage to find their footing in the workplace, their professional achievements rarely seem to result in lower workloads at home. The aforementioned 2010 All-China Women’s Federation survey on the social status of Chinese women found that more than 72 percent of the women surveyed reported taking on “the majority of” or “all” cooking, laundry, cleaning, childcare, and other household duties — compared with fewer than 16 percent of men. According to a 2015 government report, women still do an average of 74 minutes more housework than men.
In a highly patriarchal society like China’s, the traditional vaunting of men as breadwinners and women as homemakers has historically linked a woman's value to her ability to bear children, raise them, and support her husband. The country's modern capitalist economy has only exacerbated this problem. Song Shaopeng, a professor at Renmin University of China, has said that the professional success of many Chinese men depends on the unconditional support of their families. Their wives, for instance, assume responsibility for all household chores and act as the primary caregivers. According to Song, the act of privatizing — in effect feminizing — such work has helped lower labor costs, thus boosting the rate at which China has been able to accumulate capital.
In a society that forces women to bear the dual pressures of work and the home, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that intelligent, forward-thinking women are renouncing their desires for a career in order to focus on their families. The alternative — juggling family life with work life — is saddled with additional stress and social stigma. Altering this situation will require a coordinated effort to change not just mindsets, but material conditions as well.
Translated by Katherine Tse. Edited by Zhang Bo, Matthew Walsh, and Kilian O’Donnell.