Over the past half-century, women around the world have made enormous strides in education and the workforce. Within the home, however, the cause of sexual equality seems to have stagnated, as women continue to shoulder a much greater share of housework than men in both developed and developing countries, regardless of whether they work full-time or make a significant contribution to household earnings.
In other words, women must juggle work and housework; for men, it is enough to be a breadwinner. This unequal division of labor has not gone unnoticed by women, and academics like Theodore N. Greenstein, Yoav Lavee, and Ruth Katz have found strong correlations between the amount of housework done by husbands and their wives’ satisfaction with their marriages.
Until recently, however, concrete data showing a link in China between wives’ household chores and their marital dissatisfaction has been hard to come by.
One of the few exceptions is Peking University’s semiannual China Family Panel Studies survey, which has tracked a nationally representative sample since 2010. In 2014, researchers asked participants to rate their marital satisfaction; my research team and I were able to use that data to analyze the impact of different gendered divisions of labor on women’s marital satisfaction. Our findings suggest that traditional gender roles are not always easily overturned, even in a country that has modernized as quickly as China.
To start, the vast majority of married women surveyed by CFPS reported being satisfied with their marriage, with just 4.4% stating they were either dissatisfied or extremely dissatisfied. Despite the fact that married women reported spending nearly double the amount of time on housework each day as married men — 2.9 hours to 1.5 hours, respectively — 68.1% of married women reported being satisfied with their husband’s contributions to household chores, compared to just 12.1% who said they were dissatisfied.
Expectations regarding housework in China reflect the influence of entrenched gender norms. Almost 72% of surveyed women agreed with the statement “men should focus on their careers, while women should focus on their families.” Just 9.8% disagreed. Meanwhile, 80% of married women reported being either satisfied or extremely satisfied with their husband’s economic contributions to the family.
This should come as no surprise, as husbands’ contributions make up over 60% of the total income of married couples in China. Since 1949, but especially since the advent of reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, female educational attainment has risen steadily, and now even exceeds that of males. Women’s participation in the labor force is also among the highest in the world. Yet, this is not reflected in the pay that men and women receive. In 2014, the average married male CFPS respondent reported a salary of 23,000 yuan — significantly higher than the average of 13,000 yuan reported by married women. This gender pay gap has grown since the 1990s.
As a result, women are increasingly reliant on their husbands for economic support, which has solidified the traditional view that men are the breadwinners of the family. Indeed, women’s views on gender roles have shown signs of regressing in recent years.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that women’s marital satisfaction is affected by how much housework her husband does, even if it is not as important to her as his economic contributions to the family. This is especially true of women in urban areas, who live in the country’s more developed eastern and central regions, are younger and better-educated, or who report higher incomes and more modern ideas regarding gender roles.
Thus, we can say that China’s modernization has influenced married women’s views regarding the division of housework between couples, even if this change has not occurred evenly or among all women. Interestingly, women who attach more value to their husbands’ contributions to housework do not place a correspondingly lower value on their husbands’ financial contributions. Instead, their expectations come on top of the traditional belief that men should be the family breadwinners. Their definition of the ideal husband, in other words, reflects a mix of traditional and modern elements.
This combination of tradition and modernity may be related to China’s rapid modernization process. The South Korean sociologist Kyung-Sup Chang has argued that, in contrast with the long process of modernization the rise in gender equality found in the West, many societies in East Asia show signs of a “compressed” modernization. Because modernization has happened in such a short period of time, traditional cultural values have not yet fully disappeared, even as new ideas have begun to emerge.
Perhaps, when studying changing family dynamics in China, we shouldn’t consider tradition and modernity as two diametrically opposed concepts. Instead, we should understand that Chinese society is a patchwork of various traditional, modern, and postmodern elements, all interwoven together.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A father holds his son at home in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, 2018. VCG)