As a sociologist who mostly conducts quantitative research, I never considered myself a candidate for viral fame. So I was caught off guard when, in late June, a screenshot of a statistical analysis I wrote titled “The Evolution, Origins, and Heterogeneity of Chinese Gender Perceptions” suddenly took off on Chinese social media.
The paper, an examination of changing gender role attitudes in Chinese society, draws on data from the 2000 and 2010 Chinese Women’s Social Status surveys. I found that the number of respondents who said they agreed with the statement, “A man’s place is in society, while a woman’s is in the home,” had risen over that period, from 47.5% in 2000 to almost 58% in 2010. Likewise, the number of people who agreed that women “are better off marrying rich than working hard” rose from 33.7% to over 44%. In short, rather than an increase in gender equality, Chinese people had become more accepting of patriarchal gender norms.
Although there’s a lack of recent data — the next CWSS survey won’t be out until 2022 at the earliest — the trends academics were picking up on back then have become harder to ignore. From the rise of the moralizing “Three Outlooks Party” and nationalist “little pinks,” to the embrace of traditional norms like nanzhu nücong — “men dominate and women submit” — or nanzhuwai, nüzhunei — “men rule without and women rule within” — the speed with which conservative values have reemerged among young women has been startling.
It should be noted the surveys I drew on are to a certain extent affected by the so-called cohort replacement effect, in which older sample groups are replaced by younger ones who grew up in a more open and accepting environment. In theory, even if a given generation’s attitudes toward gender roles remain static over a given period of time, the natural turnover of population will cause society as a whole to gradually move toward greater equality.
Not only was that not the case here, but eliminating the interference from the cohort replacement effect makes it clear patriarchal values have made an even more dramatic comeback among certain generations than it would seem at a first glance.
What’s more, a cross-group comparative study showed the return of traditional gender role attitudes is not limited to a specific demographic, but a universal phenomenon in Chinese society. If anything, the groups whose attitudes had regressed the least included the elderly, men, those living in cities, and the less educated. Meanwhile, young, educated women in rural areas demonstrated the most dramatic change in favor of patriarchal beliefs. In other words, a group I expected would have a more liberal view of gender roles actually became more conservative.
According to commonly accepted theories of modernization, attitudes toward gender roles are supposed to steadily become more progressive as time goes by. That doesn’t seem to be happening in China.
Why not? I think part of the problem is the country’s patriarchal values are just too entrenched. But the retrogression may also be related to the ongoing market reforms. During the socialist period, women in the state sector enjoyed strong workplace protections. But after the start of “reform and opening-up” in the late 1970s, women were thrust into the private sector, and many of these protections eroded or disappeared.
Today, women tend to face higher barriers to employment, are less likely to be promoted, and are more at risk of losing their jobs. Nor are they free to focus on their careers, as they are still burdened by patriarchal expectations to raise children and do household chores. Given the situation, women essentially have two choices: resist or submit. My research suggests many are choosing the latter.
The state and society as a whole play an indispensable role in protecting women’s rights and improving their status. In addition to deepening institutional reform and recognizing the importance of the free market, China must also devise preferential policies for female employment, ensure women can participate in the economy, and provide them with the support they need to flourish in both the workplace and at home.
There has always been a vocal contingent in China that believes women do not need to work; their proper place is in the home. Given how harmful these norms have been, it’s frustrating there’s so many women now going along with this. But whatever the reason for this regression, it should remind us that the arc of social development doesn’t always bend toward greater acceptance of progressive gender ideals, and the end of patriarchy isn’t an inevitable product of modernization.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A woman looks at her phone while waiting at a bus stop in Beijing, Aug. 18, 2020. Kevin Frayer/People Visual)